Perhaps the most shocking realization with Virginia-based band Illiterate Light is that they’re only two people: Jake Cochran (drums, vocals) and Jeff Gorman (guitar, vocals) create larger-than-life compositions that seem like full band productions, a musical feat no better exemplified than on their sophomore album Sunburned, released January 27, 2023, under Red Book Records. The duo met in college, their shared interest in environmental studies and overwhelming love for music prompting them to form Illiterate Light. As a band, they have toured around the U.S., received widespread acclaim for their self-titled debut and shared their message of sustainability with their bike-powered concerts that prove there is a way to broadcast music abilities in an environmentally-conducive manner. Now, however, the duo takes the nine tracks on Sunburned to go deeper into their musical repertoire, mixing instruments beyond their guitar and drums to harness a new listening experience for everyone.
Sunburned opens with “Wake Up Now,” a song that seems like a hold-over from their debut. It’s opening chords are similar to their other hits like “Better Than I Used To” and Cochran’s intense drum beat, matched with Gorman’s sizzling riffs, feel like Illiterate Light in their purest form. Sounds take a shift for the darker in their second track “Light Me Up,” the first major introduction to a recurring theme of ominous rock n’ roll. “Light Me Up” focuses on being so consumed by your own darkness that you’re waiting for something to brighten your life. Gorman sings, “And I’m a stranger to myself/ I can’t shut up/ I can’t sleep/ There’s no silence inside of me.”
“Heaven Bends,” the third song, begins the slow deter from the band’s usual fits of static, almost garage-rock sounds. It’s a piece that highlights the point in which dark and light meet, a message that these two opposing forces can work together rather than tear each other apart. Even though the opening is more chilled out, it picks up to be a full alternative ensemble, fit with loud drums and elaborate electric guitar notes towards the end as Gorman screams out the last few lines of the song, “Screamed so loud the whole town heard/ It was raining and I was sunburned.”
Yet, Illiterate Light has come a long way from only doing what they’re known for. While their abilities to create a blaring song that sounds like a full rock orchestra have not vanquished, they have added on to this beautiful chaos with slower, more earthy tones. Their fifth song “Hellraiser” is a perfect example of their descent into the melancholic; the duo uses an overarching image of watching the hit horror movie to describe the changes in a relationship, “I’m ready to fast forward past this scene.”
Arguably the most ambitiously different song on Sunburned is “Automatic,” the seventh track that does not hide Illiterate Light’s new knack for the nostalgic. The song begins with high, airy notes that kickstart the reflective nature of the topic. As the band fails to consolidate the end of a relationship, they find themselves wishing to go back in time, another reference to the overarching idea of the speed of life which presents itself throughout the album. “Oh how I miss the days that were automatic/ We wrote the script and whatever we needed we had it/ Pain has a funny way of stealing all the magic/ But all that it takes is a moment to cut through the static.” And indeed, Illiterate Light has cut through the static: the rest of the track brings in acoustic, string, and bass energies that keep it blissfully pensive without becoming overly dramatic.
“Fck LA” remains acoustic the entire time, a simple track that deals with the fatigue from living a life on road that is still jarring due to the constant use of “fck.” The lyrical consistency of the track, accompanied by voicemail interludes, is depressingly realistic, and the piano ending drives home the message that life away from family and friends is not worth it.
The final song, “Luckiest Man Alive,” finishes the album in a more relaxed state than it started. While Illiterate Light is a duo unlike any other, one that has somehow managed to seem like a full blown escapade without needing the extra man power, Sunburned has morphed them into more than alternative reverberate. They are now eclectic, intuitive, and an all-around encompassment of the lengths a guitar and drums can take you. With these new horizons they have paved, they are positively on fire, with no sign of ever being put out.