Astro Coast is the work of a very young band with a good ear for hooks but not a lot of personality. It’s got a lot of up-to-the-minute trendiness working for it— beach/ocean imagery, reverb slathered on everything to make it sound more lo-fi, even a brief foray into quasi-African rhythms— although none of those things really define Surfer Blood‘s sound. They’re mostly just a sturdy, old-fashioned guitar-centric pop band. A lot of people seem to want to compare them to Weezer, possibly out of a desire for a current-day Weezer that isn’t horrible, although the surfy moments could just as well been lifted from Pixies’ Bossanova. The singer has a pretty good voice, which combined with the album’s heavy reverb (and the occasional faux-British accent) makes him sound like the frontman of an 80s new wave band like Tears For Fears or Big Country or Comsat Angels. By which I mean they’d probably fit in well on the Real Genius soundtrack.
But for all of these generally positive associations, Astro Coast comes off as merely workmanlike. The performances feel sluggish, and while the songs are well-written, they’re also a bit generic. The only way I can understand Pitchfork’s choice to bestow their Best New Music status on them would be from the dual perspectives of nostalgia and potential: here’s a band that sounds like a throwback to 90′s indie-rock but with some contemporary production touches, and they may be a little green but they have the skills to be good at some point in the future. And that may be true. But that doesn’t change my feelings that Astro Coast is just a pumped-up demo from a band that hasn’t yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up.
Since I first saw the title and cover art, I had been kinda secretly hoping that Contra would be a concept album about a Patty Hearst-like figure. Not like I would expect that Vampire Weekend would actually be up for that sort of narrative ambition, but upper-crust socialite turns leftist guerrilla seems like the perfect subject matter for them, no? Not to mention that, if they were to make any explicit mention of anything political, even barely, it would no doubt set off another crazy firestorm of quasi-controversy across the interwebs. Which of course would be awesome.
But sadly, no: no such surprises here. Contra is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Because it’s a Vampire Weekend album, it’s full of gentle, peppy, tasteful, and ultimately harmless pop songs. And because it’s a follow-up to a successful debut, it tries a little too hard sometimes, which unfortunately works against the easygoing vibe that is the band’s strongest suit.
Weirdly enough, VW seem to want to play right into the hands of their detractors with Contra‘s opening tracks: “Horchata”‘s chorus is nice enough, but the structure of the song the surrounds it is disjointed, making those self-consciously clever rhymes stick out like a sore thumb. And is the point of “White Sky” to justify all of the constant annoying comparisons to Graceland? It was as if the band was saying, “Oh, you think that last album ripped off Graceland? Well, we’ll show you what it sounds like when we really try to rip off Graceland.”
Thankfully, apart from the occasional WTF moment (what’s up with the Autotune on “California English”? Is the end of “Run” supposed to have all those off-sounding harmonies?), the rest of Contra is pretty good. One can only hope that “Holiday” and “Cousins” represent the vanguard of fourth-wave ska— after all, who best to revive it than NYC hipsters? If not that, then perhaps the electro-tinged reggae of “Diplomat’s Son” might spark something. The increased presence of keyboard burbles and flourishes is generally welcome, although they do go overboard with “Giving Up The Gun”, which comes off as the kind of post-Postal Service moody techno-pop tailor-made for mall PAs, banking commercials, and middling teen-movie soundtracks. It’s a pretty naked crossover bid, the most radio-friendly (and least VW-like) song on the album.
Because its missteps are a little more egregious than on Vampire Weekend, Contra doesn’t hang together as an album quite so well. But that’s not such a crime these days, and anyway, VW seems more like a singles band that only happened to luck into a ridiculously solid first album. So as long as they keep churning out great singles (more “Cousins” and less “Horchata”, if you please), I’ll be happy.
Where Bitte Orca is an example of a great album made exceptional by its track ordering, Heart to Elk is an example of a really good album made merely okay by its track ordering. Point Juncture, WA have been working on refining a dreamy/noisy sound of the Yo La Tengo/Broken Social Scene variety since their 2004 Juxtapony EP, and the opening three tracks of Heart to Elk feel like a breakthrough, with the band finally able to wrangle all of their elements into a cohesive, thoughtfully arranged whole. Rising melodic lines from horns and vibes transform “Rocks & Sand” into a languid reveille; after a similarly mellow beginning, “Once Tasted Ever Wanted” bursts open with nervous clattering drums and noisy guitars; “New Machine”‘s whispery ache is punctuated by a surprising bari-sax solo that briefly transforms it into a Menomena song (fellow Portland bands represent!).
But then comes the dark, distorted, drum-machine-abetted “Biathalon”, which sounds a bit like a Metric B-side. It comes as a jarring stylistic changeup in what I usually consider to be the cleanup spot in the tracklist (yes, I do think of tracklists the same way I think of batting lineups in baseball. Am I wrong?), so it feels like a bit of an anticlimax leading into the middle stretch of the album. However! If “Biathalon” were to switch places with “Sick on Sugar”— a more upbeat, straightforwardly pop tune that’s buried down in the number eight spot— then suddenly things start sounding a lot better. “Sick on Sugar” becomes the killer single that caps Heart to Elk‘s opening run of excellent tracks, and then fifth track “Sioux Arrow” turns into the changeup track: something a little moodier and more plodding, but still dreamy in an Autolux-like sort of way. Likewise, “Biathalon” becomes more of a palate cleanser, shifting gears for the equally driving (though in a Krautrockier way) “Melon Bird” in slot number nine.
The other tracklist adjustment I have is one I feel a little bad about, because it involves throwing out tracks. But every time I listen to Heart to Elk, I feel like it ought to end on “Fleet and Small”. It doesn’t, though; two more tracks follow, and neither of them feel necessary. “Viking Mission to Mars” tries to be as light and breezy as “Sick on Sugar” but comes off as awkward and unfinished; “The Easy Winners”, with its tinny drum loop, shakers, watery organ, and “ba-ba”s, is too blatantly derivative of YLT circa And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. (Although I will say that it’s difficult to entirely dismiss a song that references Helicopter String Quartet). The upside of removing them entirely from the tracklist, however, means that the album now ends on “Fleet & Small” where it ought, and the album then clocks in at a pleasantly concise 42 minutes. Despite these minor issues, though, Heart to Elk is exactly the kind of album that gets me excited about Point Juncture, WA; they sound like a band on the verge of something really incredible.
2009 feels like the year that I finally got old. It’s been at least five years in coming, but barely anything from the recent crop of Pitchblogosphere-pimped bands/trends is making any kind of lasting impression (except for “glo-fi” which is such a great neologism that I have to give it respect). My listening habits of late have sharply regressed to my salad days in college radio. What stuff have I been the most excited about over the past couple of months? Among other things, a reunion album from a not-very-well-known (even in indie circles) band that broke up eleven years ago. Look, I could shrug it off when Mission of Burma started making music again, because I was too young to know about them the first time around, and then it was ok that the Pixies reunited since I had never got to see them play live. But now Pavement is reuniting for shows and Terror Twilight just turned ten years old— what’s next, a Jawbox reunion? (Answer: apparently, yes.) Is there an aging-indie-rocker version of the state-fair circuit that I can go hang at?
Look. Polvo were one of the first “indie” bands I discovered in the early 90s, when I was in high school in Redding, California and there were exactly three ways to learn about good music: 1) smart friends giving me cassette dubs of stuff like Pretty Hate Machine and No Pocky For Kitty; 2) 120 Minutes on MTV (Sunday nights midnight to 2 am! Dave Kendall! Way too many shitty English haircut bands!); and 3) hanging out at the bookstore reading through copies of Alternative Press, Ray Gun and Spin and secretly making notes of stuff that sounded interesting and then having to mail-order it because no record store within a hundred miles carried it. (Holy shit I can’t believe how this sounds so Dark Ages uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways. Back then I had just enough spare cash to buy maybe two CDs a month at the Camelot Music in the mall. This morning? Downloaded five albums while sitting on the toilet. It’s the goddamn future, and to quote Louis C.K., everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.)
So yes, I mail-ordered Today’s Active Lifestyles after reading about it in fucking Ray Gun magazine in 1993, and it instantly blew out the back of my head. I had never heard anything like it before (or since, really). It didn’t sound like pop, or rock, or punk, or world music, or any other genre that I knew of. Even with the most standard rock-band lineup, I could not fit Polvo into any kind of recognizable idiom. It was kind of jammy, but not in the annoying Grateful Dead sort of way; there weren’t solos so much as structured instrumental passages that initially seemed to wander but would snap back into focus just as quickly. It made just enough sense to keep me listening, to try to decipher what they were about. How important is Today’s Active Lifestyles to me? I listened to it the first time I ever took mushrooms. That kind of experience would enshrine any album in one’s own personal Hall of Fame.
Of course, even with nostalgia clouding up my hindsight, I know in my heart that Today’s Active Lifestyles isn’t actually that great of an album. It’s good in places, but as is the case with the entirety of Polvo’s 90s output, there are plenty of dull stretches and failed experiments. Polvo were actually tagged as a “mid-fi” band for a while, which is pretty much the insult that it sounds like: they were kind of rocking the slacker, security-through-obscurity angle that Pavement and Guided By Voices eventually cashed in on, but their recording quality was just a notch better. Which is to say, their albums sounded muddy and mediocre, especially in relation to the genuinely intriguing and off-kilter nature of their music. By the time they broke up in 1998, I had come to think of them as a band that was still clearly talented but never figured out how to focus that talent.
So fast forward to now, and here’s the good news: In Prism is Polvo’s best album, no kidding. Like Mission of Burma and Wire before them, this is the sound of a band doing a reunion right: with a renewed sense of purpose, ripping out jams that are tighter, fiercer, and more confident than anything they did before. And the key thing, I think, is that they needed to go away in order to come back like this. During the interim, guitarist Dave Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson formed Black Taj, in which they brought to the forefront the boogie/psych/classic-rock influences lurking beneath Polvo’s surface. Black Taj’s second album Beyonder was a favorite of mine last year, though now it feels more like a dry run, a blueprint for how Polvo might sound within a more familiar, conventionally “rock”-like milieu. In Prism takes that blueprint and goes all the way with it.
Yes, Polvo rocks now, seriously, in a way they only hinted at before. The hard-hitting new drummer helps, as do the much-improved production values, but most of all, they sound like a band looking to prove that they can connect on a gut level without conceding anything aesthetically. Even Ash Bowie’s vocals, previously buried in the mix to be made as cloaked and anonymous as possible (in typical 90s-indie fashion), now have some emotive heft and personality to them. I have to stop myself from writing at length on every single track here, but I do at least want to point to “Beggar’s Bowl” as the apotheosis of Polvo’s comeback. It’s like every guitar texture they’ve toyed with in their career is in here, but presented anew, and updated for the modern era. It’s the kind of the song that gives me hope for the inevitable 90s revival.