There is, on its nose, a significant disconnect between SASAMI’s latest album, Squeeze, and her live performances. The artist, who opened for Japanese Breakfast at the UC Theatre back in November, explodes across the stage. She was just shy of, say, Jimi Hendrix levels at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. No guitars were lit on fire, but SASAMI did (playfully, but not lightly) run into her guitarist a few times.
It’s a bit of a surprise how, in contrast to her stage presence — that embodiment of someone embattled against stillness — SASAMI’s latest album slows down. Released Feb. 25, Squeeze is an instrumentally diverse album, certainly heavy on punk, but complete with an acoustic airiness that conjures images of the Haim sisters. It’s a grab bag of characters and stories, filtered through ’90s styles and delivered as an amalgamation of reaching and longing.
The album kicks off at its biggest and boldest with “Skin A Rat,” full of gnawing teeth and kicking feet. The track’s acid guitar finds itself outdone by violent percussion, and both are superseded by the brawl of the track’s lyrics — “In a skin a rat mood/ Cut ’em, crush ’em/ Big, big boot.” It’s carnal, it’s physical, it’s tangible, but it’s also full of confusion: “Why does your cheap attention throw me off/ Put me off, get me off, make me want to set it off?” In SASAMI’s hunt for answers, the track presents a subsequent longing for more and a dissatisfaction with that “Hell-fucked-economy/ Crisis identity.”
It’s a song that pulls the curtain on questions the rest of the album will tackle. Why don’t SASAMI’s characters connect? What are they looking for, and what are they stuck on? As Squeeze goes on, it, at face value, drops the childlike inclination to crush things with big boots for deep, cutting and utterly simplistic questions.
That’s not a pan. SASAMI, otherwise known as Sasami Ashworth, used to teach music to children by day. Her album is full of inspiration from her former day job; the blunt repetition of straightforward, direct ideas fuels her songwriting. She uses words an elementary schooler would understand and sometimes delivers them in a way an elementary schooler could appreciate.
Look to the titular track, “Squeeze,” on which SASAMI collaborated with No Home, a blistering spiel of word associations. It’s perhaps not the ideal example of a style accessible to children, but then again, SASAMI isn’t making this album for kids. It draws inspiration from elementary communication, but does an about-face, weaponizing the form to discuss carnal desires until it slides into a suggestion of abuse with “Squeezing ’til you hurt her.”
A number of the tracks on Squeeze are about failed friendships and relationships. Underpinning the album is a consistent, earnest question of belonging. SASAMI’s characters are animated by their insistence on, for example, being noticed and validated — perceived. “I need it to work,” SASAMI pines again and again on “Need It To Work,” which marks the album’s shift from exclusive hardcore guitars and warbled vocals to a lighter tone.
In some ways, it doesn’t complete the shift. The track’s crunchy rock does, in fact, give way to an instrumentally diverse playground of smooth chords and acoustic strumming on “Tried to Understand.” But that track is, in turn, followed by “Make It Right,” which melds those brighter vocals with a darker, coarser guitar. There’s a sentiment throughout the album that SASAMI takes pleasure in mixing and matching, throwing all sorts of grapes into a vat and gleefully stomping on them until they coalesce.
Her inclinations are sometimes more bashful. “Squeeze” closes out its nightmares before leading into a series of two songs that conclude the album. The instrumental “Feminine Water Turmoil” has, in its violins, all the drama of the track preceding it — mournful and cinematic — before giving way to “Not A Love Song.”
Calm drums hold a slow procession for the album’s outro, “a beautiful, beautiful sound,” as the violins fold into a gentle piano. “So I wrote it down/ For my love to hear,” SASAMI sings, and the anxieties that consume the rest of Squeeze slip away.