Dag-nammit! I SO wanted to love this record. On paper, it’s a sure thing. A runaway train of skinny tied pop rocky with a barn stormin’ female tornado at the wheel, high on the vapors of Chrissie Hynde, Blondie and The Breeders. All aboard for Winsville! Having already swooned to the mucho fabness of slam-dancin’ lead single “Dying Alone”, my noggin floated adrift upon romantic childhood recollections of Times Square, Pretty In Pink and Purple Rain. Who cares about the prom, the plastics and the jocks? We’re gonna win this battle of the bands competition. and I’m gonna take my baby doll around the world, one enormodome at a time, from Westwood to Hollywood. HURRAH!
But B-O-O-M! Goodbye gravity, hello reality. There I was, two-thirds through New Collision’s début The Optimist, watching the drab September rain, nursing a cold mug of tea and sadly concluding “Umm, this is all a bit rum, isn’t it”. I double checked the packaging and shook the case to ensure I hadn’t been slipped a mickey. I mean all the boxes appeared ticked. The Optimist uses that surefire hit-and-run approach a la The Clash—30 minutes, in/out, no wanky drum solos, leave no face un-melted, no kid un-rocked, etc. Lead Collision member Sarah Guild can stomp her feet and bellow big words like “disingenuous” while pulling the “Blue Steel” pose from Zoolander and the group clearly has a great record collection (albeit probably their older sister’s—Throwing Muses, Blondie, Rilo Kiley, etc). Hell, they’ve even got Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie—knob twiddling wizards behind Hole, Radiohead and The Pixies—pushing levers and nodding sagely at flashing lights. So why is The Optimist so disappointing?
It’s all—whisper it—just a tad unconvincing and, well, tame. For a start, the songs just aren’t memorable. They rarely venture beyond chipper, self-assembly power pop, and there’s scarce edge, tension or drama. More than once I shivered as deeply repressed horrors from the bottom feeders of Britpop became unchained and re-haunted my soul (I’m hearing faux anarchists like Echobelly & Sleeper). When Sarah sings of the hard knocks life (“Bruised and beaten, haven’t eaten, and I want to be alone”), you can’t help but feel the lady doth protest too much. I’ll wager she’s really channeling “tragedies” like missing the school bus, getting a B- in Geography or not getting tickets for Justin Bieber. Songs like “Swift Destruction” and “Over” may flirt with minor Morrissey martyrdom, but it never feels more than sloganeering or pantomime karaoke. “I’d like to order up a swift destruction/Leave us for dead/Let the robins pick our bones”, she sings. I’m imagining poor Mommy Guild sighing and saying, “That’s good dear, now go tidy your room”.
Sometimes, at least, it’s entertainingly hilarious and there are two real rocky horrors. “Ne’er Do Well” tough talks a seedy underbelly of confrontations and altercations on the mean streets where our heroes fight to navigate a mercenary sea of rock ‘n roll outlaws. Riiiight. Rock ‘n roll outlaws like the Jonas Brothers, perhaps. The biggest howler is “In A Shadow” with its toe-curling embarrassing “shouty bit”, “IN! SHADOWS! ALL! ALONE!”! Guild pulls her best “I’m-so-angry-I-could-crush-a-grape” seriously angry face and wails until Daddy buys her a pony. On the wince-o-meter, it lands just above “Nails clawing a blackboard”.
What makes The Optimist such a disappointment is that there are several genuinely glorious moments. The aforementioned opener, “Dying Alone”, is spunky, spiky, new wave with smart cookie lyrics and a melody big enough to earn its own zip code. Working part time in a five and dime and dreaming of glory days through a dirty Starbucks’ window. It’s Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald po-going through an empty baseball park with the world on a promise. The sharp “Seven Generations”, meanwhile, towers like a Pulitzer-prized professor over an album crawling with dribbling rug-rats. It’s the one time New Collisions’ fire feels contagious, and there’s a tangible smell of revolution in the air. “Rebels in the rubbl /We don’t wanna work/There’s no place for us in America”. I can already picture oceans of skinny fists raised aloft hammering in time to its gutsy taunt “HEY! HEY! HEY! Are we happy? Yeah!”. Finally, whoever’s bright idea it was to cover B52’s “Give Me Back My Man” deserves a cigar. Admittedly, it’s hard to fuck up such a mighty song, but it’s a bloomin’ triumph. Dynamics! Darkness! Weight! Power! Guild finally sounds like a ragged tiger rather than merely one of Josie’s Pussycats.
Maybe The Optimist just isn’t made for a jaded hack like me. When Guild sneers during closer “Lazy”, “I don’t wanna exist ‘cause I’m lazy”, all I hear is a kid who’s heard the opening bars of their elder brother’s Never Mind The Bollocks and decided to rebel against something, anything, stood in front of the mirror, resplendent in Hello Kitty pajamas, desperately trying to curl their lip while flipping a two fingered salute to their own reflection. The album even ends with a snotty scream of “...So shut up!”. I mean honestly, this stuff really does write itself sometimes. But hey, if you’re a teenager, maybe this will be your gateway drug into a wonderful medicine cabinet of righteous rebels from Patti Smith to Joan Jett. An inspiration for every awkward outsider to arm themselves with a six string, three chords and the truth. Maybe, New Collisions themselves will fan the few bright sparks here and start their own fire. I sincerely hope so. Here’s looking at you kids.