Atomic Age Garage Rock
Well, it must be official: there are simply no good bands names left. That pronouncement can be made with the emergence of the Portland, Oregon, quartet Nucular Aminals, a deliberately misspelled band name that is making my word processor’s spell check program work double overtime. OK, so maybe they’re trying to be clever and stand out, but you have to admit the band name is a bit silly. Even the band’s MySpace page has this to say: “Do not let their intentionally misspelled band name and large, welcoming spectacles deceive you: Nucular Aminals are a serious band and you need to pay undivided attention to their sound.” Ultimately, you have to just get by the name and muscle your way into their music, if you want to remotely take the band seriously. Even then, it’s hard to not get caught up into comparisons with the Pixies, with the band’s skittery ‘60s garage rock sound and the use of Farfisa organs that seem ripped right out of The Addams Family, pumped by a lurching Uncle Fester.
Nucular Aminals is an interesting band, albeit not always a successful one, as they perform a style of indie rock that has a remotely Pacific Northwestern moody feel to it. The good news is Nucular Aminals isn’t exactly a band you can tire of quickly, for their debut album on K Records is just about 24 minutes long. However, while the sound is quirky and a bit inventive, there’s not a whole lot on Nucular Aminals that is really worth revisiting time and time again.
The band issues its debut shot with a song titled “Bob Flanagan”. He is an intriguing subject, a real-life performance artist who, probably most notably, drove a nail through his penis on film while cracking jokes all the while. The tune itself is a sprite-like, creaky piece of garage rock propelled by some Kurt Cobain-esque guitar strumming – and that squeaky organ to boot – and might be the most noteworthy song, musically speaking, on the album, with its tuneful ‘60s pop vibe. With lyrics like “Why? Because it feels good and you always hurt the one you love”, one gets the feeling that the band skirts the motivation behind the late Flanagan’s antics. Flanagan had cystic fibrosis, and his acts of extreme masochism were fuelled by the effects of his disease. Flagellating himself was a means of defeating the pain that his own body was inflicting on him. There’s thus the niggling feeling that in writing about such a biographical character, the band misses the entire point of their subject’s performance art. The song is an attention-getter, for sure, but you wonder if it’s for all of the wrong reasons.
From there, Nucular Aminals is a strangely predictable affair, full of two-minute psychedelic pop nuggets that are virtually indistinguishable from each other. “Mpio” is an interesting rewrite of Guided by Voices’ “Game of Pricks”, filtered through a surf rock lens. “Scams” is a brooding riff rocker that whizzes by at the frantic clip of 89 seconds. “Eat Me” is a bona-fide Pixies jam, feeling that it wouldn’t be too out of place on Surfer Rosa. By now, a pattern has been established. Nucular Aminals is simply leaning upon the band members’ collective influences and paying homage to greater bands than establishing their own trademark sound. True, the use of that Farfisa is a bit unique, but it is the only ingredient in the band’s stew that feels remotely invigorating and fresh. As well, the relative brevity of these songs – the longest comes in at a relatively epic (for this band, anyway) two minutes and 59 seconds – has a tendency to dilute their impact. I know this is a throwback to the days when pop songs hovered at the two-minute mark and were there and gone, but it seems to be simply that: a throwback.
In fact, it almost feels like the band is just throwing away ideas. Many of these songs feel like B-sides than fully formed, peppy lead singles. It’s a shame, because it’s the longer songs that seem to have the most impact. The nearly three-minute “August 21st” has a toe-tappingly great instrumental break-down at the end that allows the band members to move out and breathe. Album closer “In Our Bones”, which is just about as long, is able to establish a feeling of dread and creepiness by being somewhat extended.
Nucular Aminals hints towards expanding beyond its narrow prism of kaleidoscope colors. “In Our Bones” starts out with a waltz-like rhythm and adds shades with its “bah bah bah” incantations deep in the cut. “Erring Sister” also boasts some nice wordplay, as singer Robert Comitz breathlessly exhales that “there isn’t air”. “August 21st” also has a muted organ slither to it, which is a change-up from the brash, creaky keyboard sounds found elsewhere. The track neatly breaks down and changes tempo as it progresses. Still, a pall of the familiar hovers over the project, making the band pretty much interchangeable with the bevy of Pacific Northwest bands mining the tropes of garage rock, past and present. All in all, the band is nothing special or remarkable; in fact, they’re downright conventional in many respects. Clearly, Nucular Aminals is trying to win listeners’ attention, mostly by being unpronounceable. I just wish they chose to do it with their music more so than the gimmick of a ridiculous name.