Album Review: Quarantine Sessions by Rikki Rakki
Art in a post-pandemic world is in a tricky place. The last two years have seen a wave of COVID-inspired music, books, and cinema, and it’s been kind of a mixed bag, to be honest. Some of it is truly stirring and poignant (Bo Burnham anyone?) while other stuff comes across heavy-handed and drawn-out (how long was Meredith Grey in a coma for?). I’m sure I’m not the only who dies a little inside when reading yet another blurb on a song that says “influenced by the pandemic,” but on the flip side, I also find myself immediately disengaged when watching movies or TV shows that act as if COVID either didn’t happen or was cured a long time ago. Like it or not, we live in a world where every single person was affected by the pandemic, whether they ever caught COVID or not. The pandemic has shaped the way we conduct our lives and see the world, and there’s really nothing we can do to change that. It’s up to art to find a way to approach that fact in a way that makes us want to feel and think rather than deflect and distract. The art that can do that — that’s the art that’s really going to help us process the last two years. Not so we can move on, but so we can move forward. That’s the art I want to seek out. Experience. Explore. Analyze even. If you want the same, then I highly recommend you listen to Quarantine Sessions, the debut EP by Rikki Rakki.
Kicking off with a surly, hazy guitar jangle, Quarantine Sessions wastes no time transporting you back to that spring 2020 mindset where we rarely left the house and bounced from obsessive alarm and aloof detachment. The lyrics zero in on this feeling (Angled, every shot / Digital is all that we got / And hiding behind every screen, pictures of what we’ve lost) as the band does a shaky waltz in the background building the nervous unrest of the song. With wailing harmonies swirling around the lead vocals, “Quarantine” descends further into madness with a romp in the “devil’s playground,” per the song’s chorus. The band flaunts some savvy talent here, relaying an increasing sense of mania in the song while still maintaining a swinging rock sound that’s one errant beat away from utter collapse. It’s a tricky balancing act, not unlike people trying to keep an optimistic outlook on the situation despite the deluge of worrying updates that hit our screens two years ago. But it’s one Rikki Rakki truly excels at here.
That balancing act only deepens throughout the rest of the record, as lyrical and musical tones shift around to help unpack the intensifying mental anguish. At times, the songs can be direct and frank, not sugar-coating anything about what’s going on (“We know to deal with shit, by forgetting it exists”). In other moments, the realizations take the form of vicarious fantasies in order to escape (“I watched the flames burn down my castle / I didn’t know it could go so fast / Fall like the cherry from your fingers to the pillow / Playing with fire”). The music seems to grow stronger with each shift though, becoming less nervy and more composed by the beat. In this way, Quarantine Sessions begins to unfold like an actual journey, with something to strive for, something to achieve, even if it’s just a fleeting moment of sanity.
It’s worth looking at the five stages of grief in this discussion, too. The traditional order has always been denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but Quarantine Sessions rolls through each moment in reverse. “Quarantine” plays out with a kooky acceptance of the status quo, while “Seasick” is the depressing realization of what that status quo actually is. “Fools” bargains by pulling the wool over our proverbial eyes, and “Fire” provides the fiery anger in its layered, rowdy climax. Closing track “Frankie” offers an intriguing look at denial, almost in an inspiring rejection of what’s occurring (“No one can tell if you’re smiling / No one can tell if you’re frowning / No one can tell if you’re angry / No one can tell you anything about how you should feel”). This doesn’t mean Quarantine Sessions should be played in reverse order like some therapeutic version of backmasking. No, it instead points to “turning things upside down,” which this ordeal did throughout all areas of life, especially our ability to grieve and cope.
Even if you ignore all of this context, the music here still stands tall on its own with a vibrant, robust sound. The kindling nature of “Fire” turns friendly strumming into contentious churning. “Quarantine” and “Seasick” are stout garage rock numbers with a drafty tone, while “Frankie” is much more nebulous in its sound and resonant in its delivery, with twinkling guitars that fit the space between OK Computer tracks “Let Down” and “Lucky.” But above all of these, “Fools” looms large over Quarantine Sessions. It’s a striking song that extends far past its fundamental structure with dreamy tones, gentle sway, blushing harmonies, and a lead vocal part from singer Erika Blatnik that’s beautifully tempered throughout before bursting to majestic heights at the climax. Add the context back to this one tune and you’ve got a true, true heavyweight: blunt and direct in impact, yet still sentimental and sincere at its core. It helps expand the roots of the record’s concept to make sure it can and will out-grow the shadow of its topical inspiration.
Ultimately, it’s the level of detail and care Rikki Rakki put into Quarantine Sessions that make it truly remarkable. The quartet took two years of anxiety, anguish, and agitation and let it inform their art every step of the way. The end result is a sweeping record that consoles the past as much as it affirms the future. To casual listeners, it’s endlessly enjoyable, while fine-tuned ears will always find the deeply eloquent spirit weaving through the music. Quarantine Sessions points to a time we’d all soon forget, but leaves us with a sound and sentiment that we’ll always need.
Quarantine Sessions is streaming now on all platforms, including Bandcamp where you cassette tapes are available for sale. (Link here.) Follow Rikki Rakki on Instagram (link), Facebook (link), and Twitter (link) for more updates.