Given its name, In the Red Records quite understandably trades in fuzzy, needle-busting lo-fi rock. The label has built itself quite a reputation in recent years with fantastic releases by the likes of Vivian Girls and Black Time, so it’s natural to hold the self-titled debut release by the Los Angeles-based fivesome Wounded Lion to a certain level of expectations. While decent for what it is—simple and scuzzy garage pop played for the sheer fun of playing it—Wounded Lion falls short of matching the best of what the label has to offer.
Wounded Lion’s main virtue is also the element that holds it back. Here’s a band that loves to spend three minutes or less at a time bashing out crude-yet-catchy songs that seesaw to and fro in a buzz of crunchy distortion. Imagine if the most rudimentary forms of twee pop were based on replicating the Nuggets boxed set instead of the jingle-jangle of the Byrds, and that’s pretty much what Wounded Lion puts forth. The group tries a little too hard to be dumb, sure, but it’s impossible to not crack a smile at bouncy cuts like “Dagoba System” where the band warns “They’ve got some crazy shit there” like “people with asses for faces”.
Despite its charms, the music’s limitations are readily apparent. Two- and three-chord songs abound, and most of the time the songs have little movement. The overall impression the album creates is that the song structures were expressly written to fit inside a box, hugging the sides perfectly with no intention of penetration beyond those boundaries. This restrictiveness keeps the music on the dinky side, preventing it from being truly absorbing rock music.
Yet beneath the simplicity lies hints that Wounded Lion is capable of something more. They can be found throughout the album in the form of Brad Eberhard’s David Byrne-esque yelp and the momentary bursts of jittery chord strumming, as well as individual stand out song moments, such the driving bass intro and rhythmic stabs of “Silver People” and acceleration-into-feedback ending of “Omar Walk”. The Wounded Lion bunch aren’t garage rawk dummies, as interviews that reference Plato, William S. Burroughs, and the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can attest. There is a sort of crude artiness in how the band crafts these minimalist rockers, as if the simplicity of the music is a point in of itself, bringing to mind the deconstructed art-punk of early Wire. Still, it’s the moments when the band changes things up that are most compelling, which indicates that the group might want to expand its efforts beyond crafting yet another batch of house party-friendly two-chord riffs.
Wounded Lion is nothing more ambitious than a 12-track party record that one can bob his or her head along to in buzzed-out bliss. It’s not the best thing In the Red has put out recently (not by a long shot), but it does provide some simple joys. Pointedly self-limited or not, Wounded Lion can make decent music within the confines of its restrictive stylistic palette. Really, the main worry at this point is that the music seems to be already receiving more praise in hipster circles than it actually deserves. Yet I hold out hope that the real fun will be in seeing the band figuring out where it can go next.