Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos | The Dust of Retreat (Artemis)

Their debut is one of those understated gems that grows in magnanimity with each listen. Common themes thread through the 12 songs, including betrayal, family, substance use, love, and boats.

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Last year, I asked Margot frontman Richard Edwards: What’s it all about? I left it open-ended: life, music, recording, touring, waking up, making a difference.

Edwards, a small, scruffy, soft-spoken guy, never fails to impress, but he does so in a way that befits his appearance. His music’s quiet and personal, not overbearing or stadium-bound. He slinks around the periphery of a room, unnoticed, until taking his place front and center onstage. With a voice that ranges from whispers to full-fledged heart-and-soul, he brings to life his scattered observations and inspiration.

His fragile persona mixes beautifully with the crew that is the Indianapolis–based Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. In addition to Edwards’ songwriting, vocals, and guitar, the eight-piece band also includes Andy Fry (guitars), Chris Fry (drums), Jesse Lee (cello), Emily Watkins (keys, backing vocals), Tyler Watkins (bass), Casey Tennis (percussion), and Hubert Glover (trumpet). Their debut, The Dust of Retreat—released on Standard Recording Co. last year, and retooled for release this month by Artemis—is one of those understated gems that grows in magnanimity with each listen.

Common themes thread through the 12 songs, including betrayal, family, substance use, love, and boats. Fragile melodica opens the album on “A Sea Chanty of Sorts”; an aching cello curves into Edwards’ papery voice as he urges, “Do what you like, you don’t have to be nice/just pour yourself a cup of coffee.” On the reissue, the cello is more prominent, making the song all the more fragile and aching. Emily Watkins’ breathy vocals perfectly complement Edwards’ on the simple, stripped-down, melodic refrain.

“Vampires in Blue Dresses” has an alt-country feel to it; Edwards’ voice kicks off this happy-go-lucky–sounding song; a closer listen to the words, of course, reveals this not to be the case. The music—lap steel, cello, synth, and the usual accoutrements—swells symphonically as Edwards dryly sings, “Your mother is a vampire/she sucked your old man’s life away.” Marching corps drums finish off the song in flag-bearing style.

My favorite song on the disc, “Quiet as a Mouse,” offers all the builds and swells that meaning-of-life music should. Edwards’ voice truly soars as he sings, “I felt life and love and hope infest in my bones/wake up, you’ve got a lot of things to do.” The stripped-down, acoustic guitar–driven “Jen Is Bringin the Drugs” is deeper than it sounds; reading into the motives of his companion, Edwards sings, “Love is an inkless pen/it’s a tavern, it’s sin/it’s a horrible way to begin.” Lee’s cello haunts “Dress Me Like a Clown” with its soft, country-tinged sensibility. “Paper Kitten Nightmare,” the song with the “meow meow” refrain, is actually based on a conversation Edwards had with a talkative old man in a bar: “My glass-eyed pet is purring ’bout Blonde on Blonde.”

A prowling, distinctive guitar line sets the stage on “Barfight Revolution, Power Violence”; by the refrain, you’ll be tapping your toes with the best of ’em. Random bits of percussion maintain an aura of merriment in the background; alternating between the quieter stanzas and rowdy refrain, “Barfight” is a stunning example of Edwards’ powerful vocal ability. “A Light on a Hill” is a dreamy love song gone wrong; the distortion has been removed, allowing Edwards to clearly sing about a perfect morning—“we woke at dawn and watched the sun glide over the hill/and I said it first, three words”—before his lover later admits, “I was meant to be free.” You’ll want to do a tear-streaked two-step to “Talking in Code” before closing the disc with the jingle-bell’d mysticism of “Bookworm.”

There it is, The Dust of Retreat: illuminating, enlightening, and heartfelt, all in one package. So what’s it all about? Really, Edwards needn’t have answered my question; he needed only to have handed me a copy of The Dust of Retreat. Just listen, he should have said. It’s all in here


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