Indifference to melody is often one of the first tests of indie rock credibility; it signifies a kind of defiance, as in, “listen to this chord sequence, if you dare.” I’m not equating indie rock to, say, punk, the latter being more subversive, absent all pretence of melody, and frantically disorganized. But their instincts are not dissimilar. There’s often a message lurking somewhere, however fractious and inconsistent. What redeems good punk and indie rock (Spoon, for example, or anything Stephen Malkmus has ever done) is attention to lyric—which may often be trite but is usually honest and somewhat engaged. The indie band says, “pay attention to what we are saying, not how we are saying it.” And of course it can work wonderfully well. It can also fall flat on its face and drop into the realm of the unlistenable.
Sadly, such is the case with the new album, Mad Bits, from Canada’s art house duo the Just Barelys. To make the point further: in one of the disc’s songs, “Meany”, Stephen Kelly (his band mate being Eleanor King) sings: “You write the words / I write the stupid melody / Most time the lyrics just sound meaningless to me.” No wonder: they are meaningless, silly, and self-consciously artful. That pretty much sums up every song on this lean 29-minute release. It’s absent everything needed to make even a barely serviceable album—no melody, silly lyrics, and no real commitment to any aesthetic. Mad Bits is a loose assortment of nearly interminable (and every song is short!) silliness redeemed not at all by any kind of musicianship or purpose higher than simply spitting out an album. This is a band going nowhere fast and unless they change dramatically, we wish them Godspeed.