The Florida-born, Indiana-based singer returns with her third EP, an epic collection of hazy, dream pop compositions.
Here are some hard truths about Florida:
Locals don’t hit Disney every day. When they do, it’s fun for about five minutes before the sweltering heat sets in and you’re holding an overpriced Mickey ice cream bar that’s already dripping down your hand.
The beaches, especially the more picturesque ones with the clear blue water everyone seems to envy, are constantly crawling with people — teenage boys whipping the football or frisbee right over your head, families with those obnoxiously large tents, kids running around trying to build sandcastles in vain (that sucker’s wiped right out the second high tide sets in).
Dusk is pretty until the bugs make their presence known, and as a result, sunsets are spoiled by mosquitos every time. They’re relentless, and they multiply. Swipe one away, and you’re instantly met with ten more.
It’s a gorgeous state, really, but peel back the layers of that pristine Miami postcard and you’re not left with much. There’s an abundance of backroads, single lanes at 65 miles an hour as far as the eye can see, and several state parks or natural springs along the way. If you’re hungry, you can grab a famous pub-sub at one of the 831 Publix grocery stores, or you can stop in Gainesville or Tallahassee or the like for some classic school spirit. In the smaller towns, like Ethel Cain’s hometown of Perry, it’s impossible to go more than five miles without passing a church of one denomination or another, and pawn shops and dollar stores might be even more common.
You’ll find your spots in your city — the coffee shop with the pretty patio and free WiFi, where the baristas know you by name and by order; the thrift store with the best selection of vintage picks; the route that takes you just far enough from your house to clear your head but not far enough that your family’s concerned when you say you’re going for a drive — but when you’ve wasted enough time wandering around, you’re left with a select few options.
Study, work, or dream.
Ethel Cain, a pop bombshell straight from a cinema, chose to dream.
Her new EP, Inbred, arrives as a product of the fantasy world she built around her deep south upbringing. The project is a twisted teenage dream soaked in nostalgia, yearning for a bygone youth of corrupted innocence. Across the six tracks, Cain chronicles the gritty realities of young romance and life in a small town, and no detail is spared. It’s a brilliant display of morbid storytelling mixed with hazy, ethereal instrumentals, and the contrast is an oddity that’s unwaveringly addictive.
Opener “Michelle Pfeiffer” is an instant standout. From the dreamy, far-away guitar lick to the echoed, faded percussion, it’s a power ballad for the ages. On it, Cain trades verses with emo-trap enigma lil aaron about a relationship that’s passed its expiration date. “I hate to let you go, but if I don’t, then we both know I’ll bury us both, fed to the night as ghosts,” they croon in the chorus, the split-octave harmony soaring over Cain’s ad-libs and those cloudy instrumentals. As the title suggests, the track sounds like it was pulled right from the peak of a Hollywood blockbuster, our heroine grappling with an intense emotional reckoning. It’s windows-down, scream-your-lungs-out good, and it deserves a blast or 20 at full volume.
The themes on “Michelle Pfeiffer,” instrumental and lyrical, continue across Inbred. The thick, reverb-drenched guitar highlights tracks like “Crush,” “Unpunishable,” and the title track, and tales of a tantalizing but toxic romance dominate the subject matter. “Crush” profiles the small-town object of her affections in hyper-specific detail. “He looks like he works with his hands and smells like Marlboro reds.” The picture Cain paints here is one of a boy we’ve all met, loved, or even been at one point or another, but she does it in a way that makes him seem downright irresistible. He’s a backwoods Adonis, someone so broken but so alluring that you can’t help but fall for his offbeat charms. Cain is almost Lana-esque in her description, the way this man seemingly embodies all of the hallmarks of an Americana prince charming, but with a southern twist.
Cain’s lyricism can be boiled down to the idea of elevation. She takes her relatively mundane adolescence and raises it to the level of a Homeric epic. Whether it’s the cinematic lens on Michelle Pfeiffer or the religious domination on the closer “Two-Headed Mother,” Cain’s imagery is larger-than life. Vocally too, she sounds other-worldly. Her voice has this detached quality to it, the doubled vocals creating a richness across the track list. She sounds like a choir in and of herself, and no matter how dark or biting the lyricism, the delivery is heavenly.
Yet the material, no matter how heightened lyrics or the instrumental atmosphere that supports them are, is grounded in reality. The title track tackles the grimness that southern living can elicit, and the specifics are excruciating. “Older brother made a name for himself with the cops, scumbag f*ck but I swear he’s not, he’s so good to me and to nobody else.” Dark, to be sure, and punctuated by perhaps the singer’s best vocal work on the project in that last note, but a story that someone in a small town has undoubtedly lived. Even the eight-minute opus “God’s Country,” featuring indie EDM upstart Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, is rooted in something as relatable as perils of growing up in the Bible Belt (Perry, just an hour outside Tallahassee, fits right in). “I learned a lesson, I need to pray and hard. Final hours, take care of me god.” It’s not like Cain’s living her last moments here, but with the grandeur of melodrama in the front seat, she might as well be.
Inbred is, more than anything, a reclamation. A transgender woman in the deep south and the oldest of four from a churchgoing family, Cain’s youth was marred by feelings of exclusion. The highs and lows of teenage living, where the world ends when your crush doesn’t reciprocate your undying love or your parents are holding you hostage when your curfew’s set at 11, looked different for Cain. Instead, she was dealing with a crisis of identity in a town that was less than accepting of who she is, missing out on the tenants of 21st-century youth.
But here, she is the femme fatale, she is the omnipotent being capable of total control, she is the star of the show. On Inbred, Ethel Cain reclaims her past and makes it a horrific fantasy, turning the stagnation of Floridian adolescence and morphing it into a legend. It’s a nightmare shaped to sound like a dream, and in the devastating chaos, there is beauty of epic proportions.
Check out Inbred below!