vines cassie wieland

Vines – Birthday Party

Listening to Birthday Party, the composer Cassie Wieland’s debut album as Vines, I thought about catharsis.

That might seem a little weird. Catharsis is built around the compulsion to excavate and reveal, and Birthday Party is not exactly a revealing sort of record. Its tracklist is evenly split between soft, ambient instrumentals and heavier tracks built around Wieland’s vocals. In this latter category, Wieland will repeat a single phrase and slowly build a grander edifice of sound around the words until they disappear. In these songs, while we get a glimpse of what deeper emotions might be at play, we don’t really know the context or the meaning behind them. They exist in a space between concealment and revelation. 

Take “january,” the fourth song from Birthday Party, which is built around a feeling of quiet desolation: over the warm tones of a Rhodes electric piano, Wieland intones, “I’m having trouble making it through the year / and it’s only January.” Her singing voice is soft and digitally modulated, making the words feel both intimate and disembodied. Other voices swarm in the edges of the sound field while woodwinds embroider the main melody; pizzicato strings echo a shimmering piano figure on the high end. Each time the song’s central phrase is repeated, a new element is added to the mix – until about halfway through, when a subtle drum track suddenly explodes with a cymbal crash and the instrumental lines move forward to overtake the vocals. Slowly, the words slip away, leaving the song to peter out, each individual element dissolving into feedback and reverb. 

It’s an effective structure, suitable for one of the record’s emotional peaks; listening to it with the album’s title in mind, I imagined Wieland whispering this secret to a parent or texting it to a friend, then returning to the party with a brave face on. The way the vocals slowly fade as the song crescendos feels like a person slipping off into the night, a musical Irish goodbye. The song points to the difference between our internal selves and our external selves, between private agony and public apathy, and to the temptation to just blow it all up. It feels like it could act as a turning point, a release – a catharsis. 

Only, it doesn’t. The build-burst-dissipate structure that Wieland utilizes so effectively on “january” is one that she repeatedly applies across the record. That’s not to say that the other songs don’t use it effectively; taken individually, each song feels like it could serve as its own turning point. It’s more that, cumulatively, the record begins to feel a little monotonous. 

For most of Birthday Party’s runtime, Wieland sequences the instrumentals and the vocal tracks in an alternating pattern – the soft, cold synths of “main street” segue into the delicately interlaced vocals of “i don’t mind”; after the latter song reaches its cathartic climax, it’s followed by the eerily pearlescent, woodwind-driven “candles,” and then by “january.” This structure inverts slightly during the record’s second half – the back-to-back “one more” and “drive thru” are instrumentals, while “home” and “The World at Large” are both vocal-driven – but the even split remains. This sequencing creates a cyclical listening experience. I know, after hearing vocals, that I should expect a less-dramatic instrumental track, one that breaks up the album’s tension and sets the stage for the next epiphanous explosion of feeling. 

But, the more time I spent with Birthday Party, the more that I felt that this predictability was the point. After all, the title of “one more” directly acknowledges a weary sort of repetition, which is reflected in its composition. The song is built around a looping guitar arpeggio, over which Wieland layers wordless, sighing voices – digitized to sound like synths – and high, keening strings that evoke the physical sensation of weeping. The chords build, resolve, and fall back apart, slowly crescendoing into the same kind of massive climax that makes “january” so effective. But it feels more intense, precisely because there aren’t words that the song’s emotional core can flow through; the feeling is translated purely through the instrumentation and dynamics.  

While it stands with “i don’t mind,” “january,” and “home” as one of the album’s heaviest compositions, “one more” is a departure from those songs because it doesn’t seem to find a resolution. Its sense of desolation and weariness lingers; the next song, “drive thru,” restates its central melodic figure, as if it’s spilling past the boundaries of its moment. The catharsis that “one more” reaches for with its linear build is revealed as illusory.

But even with this knowledge, Wieland still pushes for dynamic resolution. “The World at Large,” Birthday Party’s final track, is a cover of the Modest Mouse song of the same name; its soft instrumental palette contrasts with the preceding songs’ weighty arrangements, but its wordy lyricism suggests a different outlet for the album’s volatile emotions. Placed at the end of the record, it offers a neat summation of its narrative.

When Wieland sings “My thoughts were so loud / I couldn’t hear my mouth,” it acts as the album’s thesis statement. In that phrase, I hear the distance between the external narrative and the internal experience that “one more” and “january” express. And if its clarity feels somewhat at odds with the previous songs’ ambivalent cycling between tension and release, perhaps that’s understandable. It feels good to finally say what you really want to say, even if the words aren’t totally yours; even if, on some dark night in the future, you’ll need to find new ones. 

Support Birthday Party on Bandcamp, or stream it on your preferred platform. You can also follow Vines on TikTok and Instagram. Header 📷: Anna Longworth

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