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In March 2020, as the world dealt with collective uncertainty, Madeline Link was dealing with unthinkable tragedy on a much more personal level. Her aunt, Lori Tate, was killed in Seattle, a victim of a hit-and-run. Madeline was spending the early weeks of lockdown with her parents and sister in Ottawa, stuck grieving remotely in Canada’s capital city with no distractions and nowhere to go.

“Laughter was the only way we were able to get through it,” says Madeline. “It was just us four, and all of us would be able to be silent whenever we needed to, and laugh and help each other out and cry when we needed to.”

And while the specter of death looms over Crispy Crunchy Nothing and its brisk, folk-rock vignettes of loneliness, yearning and confusion, so too does Madeline’s sense of humour. It’s bone-dry, tucked within her drawling vocals, and buried beneath guitars that alternately sneer and twang. But it’s there, the album’s beating heart — a sense of purpose and unflinching resolve evident even in its title, taken from Madeline’s description of biting into a moldy apple.

“Some bear in a hat told me only you prevent the fire,” sings Madeline on “Smallest One,” the same song where she tears through a series of Matryoshka dolls trying to find the end, a philosophy that gets her through life’s never-ending problems. “I was seeing life as this series of challenges where there’s always going to be another thing you must worry about. In theory, the dolls get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. But there’s always going to be another one after the next one.”

Crispy Crunchy Nothing puts to rest any notion Madeline had about finding the end. Burnout, dead-end jobs, bike theft, stress dreams, heartbreak — PACKS move forward through them all one line, one lick, one beat at a time, equal parts Alex G’s whimsy and Helvetia’s thunderous dynamics. Sticking together songs written in Toronto, Ottawa and Mexico City (while Madeline completed a papier-mâché residency), Crispy Crunchy Nothing revisits the fuzzy alt-rock of 2021 debut Take the Cake and adds some folksy twang to the mix for an album that explores the tension between independence and isolation, between living life to the fullest and feeling like you’re wasting your time.

Madeline reunited with bandmates Dexter Nash (lead guitar), Noah O’Neil (bass) and Shane Hooper (drums, backup vocals) for a weeklong recording retreat at a cabin on Lac Sarrazin in rural Quebec that they dubbed the Trout House, where the quartet bashed out all the album’s 14 tracks and where the sauna doubled as nightly ritual and recording booth. After spending 18 months fleshing out demos over a Google Drive folder, uncertain of the band’s IRL future, the week was propelled by the kinetic energy of old friends reuniting in person, making sense of the smorgasbord of gear they crammed into the cabin. A Nashville-tuned guitar bridged the gap between free-wheeling folk and tense rock on songs like “Ragdoll,” influenced by country-tinged contemporaries like Renee Reed and Angel Olsen and Madeline’s lockdown-era listening sessions with her dad, of albums by Hank Locklin and Hank Williams.

Crispy Crunchy Nothing is heavy, and Madeline makes little effort to hide the depths of her feelings. On “EC,” the album’s folkiest number, she eulogizes a coworker from her job at a cartoon studio who drowned in the Ottawa River (“Time didn’t slow him, now he’s riding the tip of a tidal wave in the ocean”) while “Say My Name” features the vocal track from the demo, recorded after “many days of crying” over a long-distance love, her throat raw with longing.

But after the rain, flowers peek up from the soil. “Laughing Till I Cry,” a reject from a commercial, recalls fond memories of spending time with her sister: “Sometimes, I feel like life is on my side.” And “Always Be a Kid,” jangling and swaying with the Nashville guitar in the foreground, keeps her chasing those smaller Matryoshka dolls, looking for companionship but settling for herself in the meantime. “So now, I feel alive,” she repeats, over and over again. And by the end, it sounds like she’s starting to believe it.

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