From the opening organ pad and piano figure, you just know that Super Tiny Disappearing Oceans is out to break your heart. And it does. But somehow, through the struggles that would should make it impossible, hope calls from just over the rise. It “covers a lot of emotionally heavy stuff like mental health, addiction, existence, and relationships,” song writer Omar Musisko explains. His raspy, whispery voice has this rootsie quality that belies the classification of this record as pop. It is, and while that could be just fine, this collection of songs is more than that. It’s roots; it’s Americana; it’s rap; it’s healing; it’s acceptance that we’ll never heal, oh, and that’s ok.
Released last November and recently nominated for a San Diego Music Award for Best Pop Album, Super Tiny Disappearing Oceans is The Spiritual Motels’ first release. The title is said to be an attempt to capture through art the “heavy stuff” that drives the album. The San Diego duo of Amy Day and Omar Musisko recorded it between 2018 and 2019 at Earthling Studios in El Cajon, CA, with Mike Kamoo. Musisko’s guitar, voice, and lyrics are all well supported by Day’s keyboards of various sorts, including an accordion and harpsichord, and her own ethereal voice that adds magic qualities to Musisko’s.
Serotonin leads off the album, describing a battle to find and repeatedly re-find creativity. It has a self-knowing, confident quality. The struggle isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. It’s a part of the singer’s life. That understanding doesn’t make it any less of a struggle. It might even be harder this way. But knowing that if you wait, you will be let out again, well, that’s an insight worth seeing. Musisko uses string scratching to good effect on this one, though I would have liked more of the keys that grace the opening and a little less of the extreme panning on the guitar.
“Mountain Roads” comes out of the box like Cecilia with percussion inviting you in. The contrast from the inner voice of the first track to an observational one is almost jarring, but in a good way. A third-person account of someone else’s struggle. We’ve heard the story before, but there’s a sharpness to the lyrical descriptiveness that gives it a new layer. The alluring coda with the evocative refrain “she’s at the top of a mountain, at the bottom of a larger hill,” and some interesting distant vocal accents make this one an interesting take on the if-only-she-knew-what-she-wanted theme.
“Issues completes” a circle of sorts, an opening trilogy. Neither self-exploring nor accusing, this one evokes a couple exploring their history and realizing that they (or is it hoping) (or is it refusing to say out loud that they know they don’t) still “stand a chance.”
“If We Never Land” keeps up the couples’ theme. Sung as a duet it works on two levels. Is it one person pleading to another to accept a deal; to make a pact to live in something approaching détente? Or is it a conversation; a negotiation? Some interesting musical figures here remind me of late-60s Brian Wilson Smile-era, Heros & Villians experiments, lullaby-like/music box touches.
“Turn the Searchlight In” is an evocative title presented as rap again often through duet with an alluring female wordless vocal that holds it all together.
“Cognitive Kids” really highlights the lullaby quality of much of this album. Couplet after couplet traded back and forth between Day and Musisko reassuring anyone listening that, hey, after all, life’s not so bad. It’s a bedtime story for those of us – and there are many these days – who are on the verge of giving up or giving in to the, well, you know.
“Stealing Home” is a message song and my favorite on the album. Is it to a child in the process of launching? I choose to hear it that way. As a reassuring message that the singer will be there, maintaining a place where, if life gets hard, you can call and “steal what you already own.” I feel like I get it, even if it isn’t necessarily the intended meaning. Some of the best songs have that quality.
“Bandaged up Hearts” is another instructional song. Our world – hard as it is – is better than we recognize. No Rose Garden, you know. But you weren’t promised that, so let’s give it credit for what it is.
“On Fault Lines (We Were)” is a love song, but to a lost one. And “The River in Reverse” includes compressed voice messages behind the vocal. It’s a fitting finale, pushing the incredibility of hopefulness through despair through a lullaby way beyond the edge. And after all, isn’t that exactly where a first album should go.