It has been a long and arduous journey back to music for Baltimore’s Underlined Passages.
The duo-Jamaal Turner and Michael Nestor-spent the two years between 2015-2017 building a musical reputation by appealing to listeners passionate about songwriting that is guitar-driven, emotionally intense, and ephemeral. The band’s sheer grit and work ethic slowly but surely began to win over audiences at venues large and small across the Northeast US-even though many are oversaturated with seemingly infinite choices in indie rock and indie pop.
The hard work paid off with the response to their last full-length, 2017’s Tandi My Dicafi. Tandi helped build on a core loyal fanbase that has followed the band through various iterations and continues to stick with them. Reviews of Tandi at the time reflected what audiences enjoyed about the band.
The Big Takeover pointed out, “Getting more profound and musically compelling has made Underlined Passages one of the best bands around.” The Frederick News-Post excitedly mentioned that Tandi was “…a pleasant, concise experience that deserves as many accolades as anything Underlined Passages has ever done… “ The Jersey Beat wrote, “Underlined Passages offer gorgeous celebrations of brilliant musicianship.”
To this end, the band was gaining audiences at larger and larger venues, spending more time playing repeated dates in large cities like New York and storied venues like Pianos rather than in their own native Baltimore. Tandi charted consistently in the top 20 on a slew of large terrestrial radio stations, with Underlined Passages being asked to play and interview in-studio for several of them.
All was well with the band, and then it all came to a tragic and sudden halt.
Tragically, right before the recording of Tandi, Jamaal suffered a devastating and unspeakable personal loss. Although Jamaal and Michael agreed to push on supporting the record (mostly to keep busy), the emotional trauma took its toll in the late fall of 2017. When Michael found out that issues with his vocal cords may prevent him from singing permanently, the band took it as a sign that it was time to let go. Besides, Jamaal needed time and space to heal. So Underlined Passages decided to quietly stop.
And stop, they did.
Then something wonderful happened.
In the winter of 2019, Jamaal and Michael sat down for dinner and asked whether they were ready to begin again. The answer was a resounding “Yes!” But this time was different. Before they had a chance to have their first rehearsal, the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic, and the project was put on hold again. It seemed like a higher power was saying, “No!” to the yes. The duo was lost with the rest of the world. Then an idea. Why not put out a song to raise funds for the Red Cross for the pandemic response?
The highly successful fundraiser driven by a new song, “Bifurcation,” was picked up by the US and European radio and blogosphere-with the German blog She Wolf stating that Bifurcation was “a song that inspires indie rock fans not only with fantastic songwriting…but also inspires feeling and emotion and kidnaps the listener into his own cosmos.”
Fundraising for The Red Cross inspired Jamaal and Michael to record a new full-length and use a new process to do it.
After nearly four years away, Underlined Passages released their new record, Neon Inoculation, as an experiment. They threw out the rule book and recorded the album as a series of singles on Spotify, culminating in a full-length. In addition, they sequenced the album in the spirit of the traditional mixtapes the band grew up listening to.
The Neon Inoculation (Mixtape) is a YouTube-only release set up for the listener to engage as they would a traditional record. Via YouTube, the listener can take in the sequence as one long movement with interspersed mini-songs and interludes/bagatelles-a shout out to the lo-fi indie mixtapes before internet 2.0 and social media (and how the band would prefer listeners to engage.)
Neon Inoculation, recorded by Frank Marchand (Sugar, The Thermals) and mastered by Alan Douches (The Promise Ring, Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective), is a pandemic-fuelled reflection on what many went through and still feel today. It also represents a return from the wilderness from this hard-working band from Baltimore. A return many of us are experiencing now, climbing back from this tragic pandemic.