Three years after the release of their first self-titled album, Chicago’s own NE-HI is back in full force with the release of their sophomore album, Offers. NE-HI (composed of Jason Balla, Michael Wells, James Weir, and Alex Otake) has been a staple of Chicago’s music scene since their 2013 formation. A majority of their early performances were DIY shows, which Balla says “was a strong example of hard work, making something out of nothing, and really dedicating yourself to the craft.” Since their DIY days, NE-HI has performed at notable Chicago venues such as Thalia Hall, Empty Bottle and Lincoln Hall. They’ve completed multiple tours, and are now slotted to perform at SXSW and Pitchfork Music Festival.
Like its predecessor, Offers continues to showcase NE-HI’s ability to exude and entice emotion through sounds alone, something that has become a hallmark of their work. “Stay Young,” the album’s closer, captures the nostalgia and longing one has for their youth, or perhaps simply the feeling of it. The lyrics, addressing the sting of time gone by, change, and growing up, are relatable to people of all ages and walks of life. The words are accompanied by a series of dreamy, catchy guitar riffs that capture and convey the emotions expressed in lyrics on its own. The song immaculately harnesses the conflict between feeling young and infinite, yet knowing that time will not allow it to last forever.
Two other tracks on the album, “Drag” and “Buried on the Moon” (which were released as singles in 2015 and 2016 respectively), serve as upbeat foils to “Stay Young”.
“Drag,” which immediately starts off with the song’s signature buoyant guitar hook, impeccably encapsulates the oh so human practice of suppressing and avoiding difficult thoughts and emotions, and the toll it can subsequently take on the mind. “Buried on the Moon” tells of the highs and lows that accompany one’s pursuit of what they love. The music and lyrics converge to give listeners a simultaneous sense of longing and joy, communicating both the song’s message and the feeling of this message.
Offers is something of an auditory snapshot of the human experience. Many tracks on the album contain a central theme of change, and explores the trials and tribulations that come with it. Change has a central presence in all lives, therefore making Offers a work individuals of diverse backgrounds and life experiences can establish a connection with.
Balla says that this sense of connection was a primary focus of his while creating Offers. “The idea of connection is something I’m constantly concerned with,” he began. “That feeling you can get reading a book, and there’s this ah-ha moment where you recognize yourself or your experience. I crave that from art and that’s the best direction I feel I can aim for. That being said, Offers is certainly a product of its time.”
When it came to the creation of the product, NE-HI placed a special emphasis on sharpening songwriting and editing skills. “When we made the first record it was just the result of every song we had written up until we recorded in our friend’s basement,” Balla said. “Where that was a period of wild basement shows and messy creative energy, Offers was about expelling that energy and then hacking off what wasn’t essential. Sonically we made a conscious effort to use way less reverb so there wasn’t anything to hide behind. The songs had to stand on their own, each part heard.”
This artistic objective certainly came to fruition. From the first few seconds of the opening track “Palm of Hand,” listeners can instantaneously hear each and every instrument being played in a clear and crisp manner. Not only is the work of each musician distinctly heard, but it blends together smoothly to create one cohesive sound.
Sonically speaking, it is all too often the work of rhythm sections tends to get lost, but Weir and Otake not only hold their own as a unit, but stand out as individual musicians. Weir’s robust bass line that opens “Prove” propels the song’s rollicking energy, and Otake’s drumming adds vigor, dynamics, and edge to the otherwise ethereal “Don’t Wanna Know You.”
This degree of creative cohesiveness is central to NE-HI as a band. “I think without the four of us playing and making these songs together it just wouldn’t be NE-HI,” Balla said. “Both creatively and with sensibility, but even emotionally everyone balances each other out. We often pick up each other’s shortcomings in a really effortless kind of way. I’m truly lucky.”
This sense of community also prevails within Chicago’s music scene at large. Artists attend one another’s shows, establish personal and collaborative relationships, and even accompany one another on tour. NE-HI, for instance, has performed alongside other Chicago based artists such as Twin Peaks, Flesh Panthers, and Jimmy Whispers. Occurrences of this nature are common and a hallmark of the city’s supportive creative community. “There are so many, and wildly different, creative voices in town and people really show up and spur you on,” Balla said.
Over their four years of existence, NE-HI has continued to evolve as an established musical entity. They have diversified their creative approach and “learned to be freer” within it, as Balla said. Something that hasn’t changed, however, is their ability to generate raw creative content that individuals can establish an emotional connection with.
To no exception is Offers. With songs that touch on longing, stifled emotions, fear, and the pursuit of dreams, Offers is a work that immaculately captures nearly each and every facet that life has to offer. This falls into precise alignment with NE-HI’s creative objective for the record.
“Offers is a record that captures a lot of transition and tensions that we were experiencing both as a band and individually,” Balla said. “ I just hope people can listen to the record and maybe recognize something familiar on a human level.”
written by LINDSAY TESKE