Review: Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie Mabey

Whoooo-boy. It’s amazing how ranty people get when you like things they don’t. Or when you critique things they like. Comes with the territory, I suppose, but I’m sort of beyond busy at the moment and haven’t had a lot of time for responding to the Angry Internet, let alone writing new critical posts for them to stew over.

So here’s a little article that’s all about joy and celebration. You all need to get your ears on this album: Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie Mabey.

This album is just a breath of fresh air, joy, and exuberance. If you’re a geek and you love quirky, beautiful, original music, you need this album in your life.

I first encountered Stephanie Mabey’s work when Battleaxebunny posted ‘The Zombie Song‘ as part of the Music for the Apocalypse series that I started over at The Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse. I have an extensive knowledge of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic music, but I’d never heard this one before. One of the great things about being involved with this series was actively looking out new songs and finding the indie creators that I’d never hear just listening to mainstream radio, but when Battleaxebunny posted this one I had barely dipped my toe in that water, and it really opened me up to the amazing stuff scrappy creators are doing independently of big business.

If you haven’t heard ‘The Zombie Song’, allow me to improve your life (complete with some really fantastic artwork from Maddy Ashton):

When I had a post-apocalypse themed birthday party last year this song was the one everybody’s ears perked up for. The catchy rhythm somehow manages to suggest the lurching movements of a zombie whilst remaining charmingly upbeat. The lyrics are witty, sweet, and dark all at once. They clearly come from a place in love with the genre and simultaneously breath new life into the undead and into love songs:

Our love story

could be kinda gory

far from boring

We’d meet at a post…

apocalypse

The narrator warns, perkily, instantly setting the tone – this is going to be both a love song and graphically macabre, but no part of it will be maudlin. It’s not just a pleasing juxtaposition, these first lines trip us from the clichéd, saccharin notion of a ‘love story’ to the equally cliché ridden zombie genre, highlighting how narrowly both are often viewed and how much fun can be had in mashing them together, each using the other to throw its own bounds open to new possibilities.

And, as a woman listening to a female musician with clearly geeky tastes this also confronts head on the idea that women are somehow ‘naturally’ more suited to the romance genre. ‘You think I can only write love songs because I’m a girl?’ the song seems to say, ‘Well, take this love song.’

But it’s not just a ‘I’ll show you!’ forced affair, this song is written with love for a genre whose tropes are known by the writer and held with great affection – an affection that is somehow in tune with the love that is also central to the song:

You’d be hiding in

a second floor apartment

knocking all the stairs down

to save your life…

from the undead.

Double-barrelled shotgun

taking out the slow ones

then you’d see the passion

burning in my eye

and I’d keep my head.

But beyond the interest, the quirkiness, the experimentation and juxtaposition, this song is more than anything else fun. It’s so catchy I woke up with it in my head the other day and I’ve been singing it since… and I’m not sick of it yet. It’s not the sort of catchy that comes from mindless repetition; it’s the sort of catchy that comes from a tuneful, original, easy to sing chorus set in the context of genuinely interesting and non-repetitive verses. And the chorus itself catches the attention as the singer lets out her (powerful and expressive) voice in a tone whose passion and poignancy cannot help but make one smile when applied to lyrics that say:

If I were a zombie

I’d never eat your brain!

Honestly, the whole album is worth it just for this song, but after a year of loving this one track, a friend (who had bought the album after I played her the song) persuaded me to buy the rest, and boy, it was worth it.

Mabey sets the tone for the album with the joyfully apocalyptic ‘I Pushed the Button’:

Again, it’s a love song, but the metaphors via which the narrator’s emotional state is expressed are of swinging wrecking balls, having a heart ‘shaped like mushroom clouds’, being ‘wired to delete’ and ‘disassembling‘. We’ve all heard a million songs about people who sabotage their romantic relationships and self-destruct, but rarely is the familiar state of mind conveyed via such distinctively geeky reference points. It’s delightful, and the fairground quality of the melody perfectly chimes with the sense of someone who is queesily out of control in a Waltzer, (rather than the conventional rollercoaster) of highs and lows and unpredictable turns. This song is coming at a familiar idea about love from a new angle, finding extra nuance along the way, and laying out Mabey’s geek credentials up front.

And it’s not the only fairground-themed song. Track number 7 (far enough into the album to avoid overdosing on the fairground) ‘The Main Attraction‘ tackles directly the link between the modern meaning of the word ‘geek’ and its origin as a term for sideshow ‘freaks’ – ostracised by society in a way analogous to what most of us with geeky tendencies (especially women, who tend to be shunned both by the mainstream and by male geeks) grew up experiencing. In identifying herself with the ‘bearded lady’, Mabey reminds us, again, of the special pressure on women with regard to appearance. There’s something intriguing about using an identification with outsiders as a way of expressing to fellow geeks that she’s ‘one of us’, and theme of the song draws out the special comfort of finding solace in one who loves you because you are different in the same way as they are:

None of your friends

comprehend why we’re both so happy

Your parents just think

we’re a couple of freaks

Solidarity in exclusion really means something. And isn’t there something universal in that, too? We all want to feel different because our individuality makes us special, but equally we want to find someone who shared all the special things that make us different. And love is like that: that contradiction – needing someone to be like you in the ways that make you unique, unusual, different.

The title song, ‘Wake Up Dreaming‘, could sit respectably on any number of pop or rock albums:

And he can’t shake the feeling

that this whole world’s asleep

He’s full of vision no one else can see

Granted, the song’s about a wannabe comic book artist with a boring day job, but I like that it appeals to such a universal trope: to want to somehow ‘wake up’ in the dream world – the one where you’re famous, or rich, or you have the job you’ve always dreamed about – and the encouragement to keep on dreaming, that you might get there if you just hold on… And by likening the ‘day job’/dream binary to the secret identity/superhero one it’s a really clever way of exploring how geeky passions aren’t so very different from so-called ‘normal’ ones. It’s just another way of dreaming of a better life.

It’s a recurring theme throughout the album, which I guess might be why the title takes its name from this song. Some of the songs, like ‘The Zombie Song’, wear their geek card front and centre, perhaps culminating in the final song ‘The Next Level’, with 8-bit tones and lyrics which read:

I wake up, I’m pixellated

Ching, ching, collectible coins

The music gets all evil

Creepy, could this be

dun, dun, dun

The theme song for the boss

This is a song with geekery in every beat, but the overall album shifts between the geeky and more universal themes that riff on this thought of the interrelations of apparently niche passions and more generally accessible themes of what it is like to be a human.

Stephanie Mabey is a great artist with a beautiful voice turning her talent to the sort of subject matter that, if you read this blog, should be right up your alley. I can’t recommend her work enough, and she’s an indie creator, so if you give her money you’ll be doing a good thing to feed diversity in the arts.

Go here and buy her album. It’s only $10 for 11 songs, which is, like, £6.50 at the time of posting in Brit money. BARGAIN.

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4 Responses to Review: Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie Mabey

  1. Heath Graham says:

    That’ll be in my head all day now!

    Thanks! 🙂

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