Los Angeles’ In the Red Records is a fairly well-known indie label specializing in scuzzy bands that push a garage-rock sensibility well into the realm of distortion and fuzziness. Their roster is a venerable who’s who of punky sounds: The label put out albums by the Vivian Girls, Jay Reatard, Reigning Sound, TV Ghost, and many, many others that are worthy of your time and attention. Wounded Lion is one of those bands that calls the label home, and they have been exceedingly prolific at putting out records. Starting with a series of seven-inch singles in 2008 and 2009, the band put out a self-titled, lukewarmly received debut album in 2010 and, just a year later, unearthed their follow-up, IVXLCDM.
In the press, singer/guitarist Brad Eberhard, a former art teacher and current fine art painter, has drawn comparisons to the sculpted yelpings of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, and the band itself has been called everything but the second coming of the Modern Lovers. (Let’s remember that the Modern Lovers’ Jerry Harrison eventually went on to be a member of the Talking Heads, so the lines drawn by the music media all tend to lead to that seminal NYC art-pop outfit.) If Wounded Lion is really just a modern reincarnation of Jonathan Richman’s old band, they do it with a low-brow twist. Whereas the Modern Lovers made references to such high-art figures as “Pablo Picasso”, Eberhard and company write songs about Star Wars, Batman and Robin, and, believe it or not, The Love Boat. That aspect of the band is perfectly tailored for a nerdy, pop culture saturated music critic, but the thing is – at least on IVXLCDM – Wounded Lion hit and miss the sweet spot in equal measure.
There are a few changes afoot on this sophomore release, which show the band trying to up the ante in their musicianship. First of all, the band has brought on board Thee Oh Sees’ drummer Lars Finberg, who, here, doesn’t have all that much to do generally but pound the skins as fast and repetitively as he can. (There are indeed moments on IVXLCDM that result in whiplash.) The second difference is that, where Wounded Lion tended to keep things quick and concise on their first long-player, with songs generally in the two and three minute range, the group is unafraid to jam out a bit here: Three of the 10 songs eclipse the five minute mark. Therefore, the end result is a little muddled and illustrative of a band trying to find a groove by trying new things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Where IVXLCDM works is when the band is being coy and as unserious (read: fun) as possible. Songs like “I’m Sad” are catchy and brittle, and it is easy to get carried along with call-and-response lyrics such as “Well I am sad / (Why are you sad?) / ‘cause it’s time to say goodbye / I want to play more music / and I want to sing more songs”. Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can easily get behind the giddiness and nervousness conjured up by such sentiments. On “Relaxation Is My Speciality”, Eberhard sounds especially like Byrne in his guttural cooing, and, while the song veers all over the place lyrically (Is it about depression, or is it about one’s hair being too long?), it’s easy to get carried away by the bounciness and infectiousness of the song’s cowpunky vibe. Then there’s the seven-minute showstopper, “Raincheck Vibrations”, which name-checks the aforementioned references to an episode of The Love Boat and the ‘60s Batman series. Even though the song kind of plods along, the sheer hipster irony of quoting campy TV shows of yore is interesting, and Eberhard unspools his narrative quite effectively.
However, these moments all come in the last half of the record, meaning that Side Two is stacked with the songs that tend to be the most memorable. Opener “Monkeys” is a droning, repetitive slab of garage rock that goes on and on for an intolerable five minutes. The quickest songs are frontloaded as well, with “Wyld Parrots” and “Black Ops” falling well short of the two minute mark, and these seem to be just punky throwaways that don’t really stick into your cranium in any special way. In fact, the songs seem routine, as though Wounded Lion could just spit out these ditties in their sleep. And then there’s “Going Into the Unknown”, which is a stylistic turn into legitimately dour space-rock – something that just feels out of sync with the rest of the record. It is also probably among the least memorable of the songs here, simply because, whereas the group is having a ball elsewhere on the disc, the spirit of Joy Division is being conjured up here. Somehow, the song sticks out like a sore thumb, and you may wind up playing that old Sesame Street gem in your head about which one of these things doesn’t belong here.
Outside of this polarization, there are signs that time may be passing Wounded Lion by, that their moment may have come and gone. Their 2010 debut got write-ups in a few major Web-based music publications – and, yes, I have to invoke the incantation of Pitchfork here. However, at the time of my writing of this review towards the very end of 2011, IVXLCDM has seemingly been only reviewed in a handful of music-related blogs. It’s as though the group has lost sense of steam and momentum, and it may just be that whatever cachet they obtained by releasing a handful of singles in advance of their debut and being signed to a well-known indie label such as In the Red might have simply evaporated. Time will tell if anyone bothers to do a write-up about their third full-length, but IVXLCDM only offers fleetingly catchy numbers here and there. It is hardly memorable, and, when it is, it’s simply due to the fact that the band is having a blast.
If Wounded Lion can somehow capture that essence in a bottle on future efforts, then maybe they’ll have a record that can go tête-à-tête with that first Modern Lovers album. As it stand now, though, IVXLCDM is a document of a band that is unsure what they want to be. Your most lasting impression of the disc will be that the group’s name is apt, because here at least they sound, well, wounded somehow. The prescription for that is simple: more songs about Star Wars, Batman and The Love Boat please, and keep ‘em short and snappy.