Math and Physics Club is a band you want to hear more of and more from. Since being crowned by this very publication with the top indie-pop album of 2006 for its self-titled debut, this Seattle outfit has, for whatever reason, been largely dormant over the past four years. Search for clues online as to what happened to Math and Physics Club and even the band’s own website bio ends abruptly after 2007; the mystery is all the more confounding, considering that the band was relatively prolific during its first few years, releasing a handful of EPs in addition to its first long-player. With the worn-in cardigan feel of its partly-cloudy pop, Math and Physics Club had a solid foundation of basic twee principles to work from that, for whatever reason, it didn’t continue to build on.
It’s definitely a welcome development that Math and Physics Club makes its return on the archly titled I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do, though the new album still leaves its listener wanting for more. The album rushes through its 10 tracks in less than 25 minutes and just calls out for something else, whether it’s added length, richer instrumentation, or a slightly bolder approach. The shimmering opening track “Jimmy Had a Polaroid” is a microcosm of I Shouldn’t as a whole: While the song exudes a disarming charm from Charles Bert’s precocious vocals, the tuneful guitars, and the shambling rhythms, it still doesn’t seem like it’s quite enough, ending right when you thought it was just getting going. “I’m Trying to Say I Love You” and “I’ll Tell You Anything” are pleasant enough, but they, too, flit away between their strummy low-profile sound and the clichéd choruses that double as the titles. On balance, the latest offering isn’t quite as rich and fleshed out as the debut, though perhaps that’s due to MAPC’s downsizing from a five-piece to a trio.
When the songs are more expansive both in scale and spirit, though, Math and Physics Club gives the sense that it’s up for trying out new directions that might open up some more possibilities for itself. In particular, “Everybody Loves a Showtune” boasts a fully realized aesthetic and a developed narrative, coming off like a warmer, homespun take on the Decemberists as MAPC moves from bedroom-pop to a mini-orchestra sound that has its own everyday dramas to tell. “Love or Loneliness” starts modestly, but swells with a touch of strings and a sprinkling of bells, showing how much MAPC can do in a (shorter than) three-minute pop song. Better yet, the giddy melancholy of “Will You Still Love Me?” is hopelessly romantic, just not blindly so: it’s a feeling Bert gets across with sweetly knowing lines like, “When this aging body starts to wilt / And my dirty laundry makes you ill / When we get our kicks from small blue pills / Then will you still love me?”.
For an album that seems to be caught between past triumphs and what else might be down the road, it’s appropriate that Math and Physics Club ends I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do by punctuating it with a big question mark on “We’re So DIY!”. Ambiguous in its kinda snarky, almost nostalgic tone, “We’re So DIY!” gets you wondering whether MAPC is trying to regain its footing as an indie band on the rise by teasing its own underground ambitions or offering a valedictory piece for what could’ve been, since its cheeky vocals could go either way: “We’ll never carry up the charts / But we’ll be the indie stars that everybody hearts”. Those questions remain unanswered on the album: Is I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do the first step for Math and Physics Club to recover the momentum it lost four years ago or is the group sneaking in a proper goodbye? Whatever the case, I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do is still worth getting at least a little wistful over.