Album Review: Cayetana – New Kind of Normal

The Philly trio's sophomore effort promises us that we're not really alone in our struggles

“Sometimes it’s hard to say when you’re just having a rough day.”

These are the first words Augusta Koch sings on Cayetana’s new record, New Kind of Normal. They’re objectively true; it is hard to say when you’re having a shitty day. Not because words are tough to come by or because it’s literally difficult to speak (though, these very real and consequential challenges exist). Rather, it’s addressing the fact that we’re encouraged to internalize, compartmentalize, and quiet down instead of speaking out, expressing, and connecting. The pendulum is, subtly and gradually, swinging away from an unhealthy culture of silence; mental health stigma, while still embedded and pervasive, is being challenged and rejected. Koch, bassist Allegra Anka, and drummer Kelly Olsen deliver a blow in that fight with New Kind of Normal, an expansive, charged record that rejects the idea that we need to suffer alone. It forwards the idea that feeling weird and abnormal is normal. These aren’t revolutionary phrases; what’s remarkable isn’t so much the words but the utterance of them.

It speaks volumes that Cayetana are one of the most celebrated acts in a swollen Philadelphia music scene, despite only having one full-length out. Their 2014 debut, Nervous Like Me, sat nestled among a handful of EPs and splits, including one last year with Melbourne’s Camp Cope. “Mesa”, the breath-of-fresh-air first single off New Kind of Normal, was on that split. Like the rest of the record, it’s raw, pure, assured, and exasperated: “We can only hurt ourselves for so long,” Koch pleads on the chorus. It’s a wake-up call.

The clarity and confidence of New Kind of Normal are absolute and uncompromising. Desiring total control over their work, they created their own label, Plum Records, to release the new album, ensuring its integrity and voice. Longtime producer and friend Matt Schimelfenig explores ambient sound across the record, detailing closer “World” with street sounds and the kind of background anxiety that the album addresses. It brings a level of intimacy and familiarity that’s instantly recognizable; it also prevents the record from feeling insulated, lending a distinct note of reality and confrontation. Throughout, the band campaigns for acknowledgment and community rather than escapism and isolation.

More than anything, New Kind of Normal is a celebration. That’s explicit from the delightful cover art, featuring an ecstatic adult jumping on a bed. It’s a vivid, bright image, qualities that are transposed on the record’s sound. Koch’s guitar is crisp, clean, and punchy, never obscured or unsure, while Anka steps in with melody lines on bass, playing lead to Koch’s rocksteady bar chording. With tasteful fills on “Mesa”, the agile jog of “Follow”, and the mournful, slow-marching haze of “World”, Anka’s work is imaginative and memorable.

The record starts in at a power pop sprint, with opener “Am I Dead Yet?” and followup “Mesa” firing back-to-back fist-pumpers before settling the heart rate down with “Too Old for This”. It feels like the comedown from the euphoric, cover-art-happy highs of the previous two tracks and effectively introduces an unspoken sonic arc to the record. Where Koch’s impassioned lyrics are an explicit statement of intent, the band’s urgent dynamics relate the same sentiments atmospherically.

The loud-and-quiet wash of major-to-minor anthemics is a striking and affecting examination of mental illness and wellness. The thunderous, cloudy chug of “Bus Ticket” (“You think my life is a vacation, but I’m adjusting to this medication,” Koch snarls) gives way to a gasping, technicolor chorus: “This is the new me, and I won’t apologize!” Koch belts over Olsen’s crashing percussion. New Kind of Normal gets us acquainted and comfortable with these ups and downs.

And there are plenty of both. Koch is defiant on “Certain for Miles”, shouting: “When the world bears down on me/ Will I laugh at its audacity?” The strong delivery suggests an affirmative answer. But the one constant through the record is impermanence: a recognition that biology, chemistry, and circumstance prevent almost everything from being anything but a perpetual work in progress. “Sidesleeper” is a stark reminder of the depths of despair brought on by depression: “Will you love me still if I can’t get out of bed?” Koch wonders simply.

What New Kind of Normal tells us is that the plural manifestations of mental illness and wellness aren’t weird or foreign. They’re as routine as laundry and credit card bills, and Cayetana is rejecting the narrative that pathologizes them as deviant. In doing so, they’re providing us with solidarity and a salve: For the times we feel that everyone has it together but us, for the times the world bears down on us, and for the times we can’t get out of bed, we can throw on this record and know we’re not alone.

Essential Tracks: “Mesa”, “Bus Ticket”, and “Certain for Miles”


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