Thanks to the now notorious antics of singer Tim Harrington, Les Savy Fav’s live show has earned a reputation for being wildly chaotic. On record, though, Les Savy Fav is a different beast altogether. They’ve spent their discography working, slowly but surely, to a controlled, tight sound. This constant honing reached its peak on 2007’s Let’s Stay Friends. That album, perhaps their best, stripped their danceable rock tunes down to the bare essentials and made for a set of raw and infectious songs that gave the band’s live energy a volatile focus.
Root for Ruin picks up right where that record left off, and provides another solid set of airtight, raucous tracks. “We’ve still got our appetite!” Harrington shouts over and over again on “Appetite”, the album’s opener, and it sure sounds that way. The guitars knock out lean riffs and the rhythm section propels the song forward with a growing inertia while Harrington commands attention with his snarling bark. “Dirty Knails” explores a slightly more ragged rock sound, with notes ringing and clanging together, but the deep hooks are still there. “Sleepless in Silver Lake”, on the other hand, goes for the subtler textures that cropped up in places on Let’s Stay Friends—most notably “What Would Wolves Do?”—and succeeds in shifting into a more sinister mood, becoming more than just another L.A. song when Harrington growls about how “These kids will kill you just because they can / Their teeth are bleached and their tits are tanned”. It’s not new imagery, really, but the vitriol mixed with winking humor is still awfully effective.
That trio of songs sets the pace for Root for Ruin, and the best of the record follows their lead. Album standout “Lips ‘n Stuff” rides on a simple riff, and leaves space for the drums to crash along while Harrington works himself into a frenzy over the course of the song, culminating in a bittersweet concession when he sings, “Let’s pretend we’re innocent / We’re just friends with benefits”. It’s a moment that reveals the real strength in Harrington’s lyrics. They’re clever and cutting and often hilarious, but he also sneaks some real feeling into his songs, which gives them deeper, more lasting roots.
Other songs like “Excess Energies”, “Calm Down”, and the thumping closer “Clean Spirits” drive home the band’s breakneck pace. But Root for Ruin does start to drift away from Let’s Stay Friends as it goes. That last album, tight as it was, still had a feeling of discovery. They brought in players from other bands—including Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene, and the Fiery Furnaces—and every song sounded fresh, with subtle shifts and flourishes that made the album feel as if they were finding out what it would be as they went. Root for Ruin, though it has the same effective tightness, doesn’t always feel like the band is discovering anything new. Some tracks in the middle of the record—particularly the bizarre “Poltergeist” and mid-tempo “Dear Crutches”—feel a little too settled. Where the last record found new tension in tightening up, this one sometimes feels too reserved. And with those guitar riffs, and that rhythm section, and Harrington’s goofball machismo up front, Les Savy Fav could sound like a lot of things—but they should never sound reserved.
Still, let’s be clear, Les Savy Fav are a rock band on their game, and on their game they are better than most. Root for Ruin is an infectious, smart, and well-executed record. But in a discography that has always sounded like it was well executed while it was pushing towards something new, something more refined than the last sound, parts of this album make it feel like a plateau. Of course, more of a great sound is just fine, but it feels like a band this good still has plenty more tricks up their sleeve.
// Notes from the Road
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