Stephen Malkmus may be both the best and worst thing to happen to indie rock. Obviously, he’s an amazing songwriter and we’re all better off having his music in the world, but he’s on par with Kurt Cobain as far as pale imitations and untalented acolytes go. Too many aspiring indie bands have learned the wrong lessons from him, thinking that all you need is some sloppy guitar work and lackadaisical vocals in order to be sufficiently indie rock enough. This brings me to what I like about Darlings and what makes their debut Perfect Trip such a pleasant experience: They paid attention to the other side of Malkmus, the nonsense Romantic poet from songs like “We Dance” and “Fin” that so many new lo-fi groups tend to ignore in their never-ending quest to re-record Slanted & Enchanted. It takes heart as well as wit to make truly resonating music, and heart is something that Darlings have plenty of.
Like Malkmus’s early records with Pavement, Perfect Trip goes out of its way to give the impression that Darlings play the sloppiest form of indie rock imaginable. Nothing about the band’s playing or the production especially screams “tight” or “focused”, which is the sort of thing plenty of bands have tried before and are still trying to this day. In 2013, playing anything that can be considered “lo-fi” is kind of a gamble; now that there are recording programs that can make high-quality recordings, any implementation of various lo-fi tropes (tape hiss, peaking vocal tracks) are blatantly an aesthetic choice done to deliberately re-create what used to be an incidental quality. For Darlings, this couldn’t be more truthful, as much of Perfect Trip makes a point of hitting the various points on the ‘90s Indie Rock Nostalgia tour, from the Sebadoh-inspired punk piss-take “Extras Talk to Extras” to every inflection from singer/guitarist Peter Rynsky’s mouth.
The singer’s obvious Malkmus worship could be the one thing that holds the band back most; when he’s singing material tailored to his drawl, such as first single “Sit On It!” or “Public Access”, it works; elsewhere, it becomes a bit of a distraction, similar to a young kid imitating his favorite singer in his garage. Despite this, much of Perfect Trip remains a worthwhile experience largely due to the band’s surprising grasp of melody. Nothing about their playing or songwriting is especially complex (not even in the understated way that their heroes’ songs were actually tightly-crafted), but the band use their simplicity as an asset rather than a crutch. The hooks on “All Day Long” and “Little Video” stick around after the songs have finished, and “Starting Out” is surprisingly affecting, showing that recording in a slapdash manner doesn’t mean that you have to put on an ironic façade.
Ultimately, it’s this sincerity that goes a long way towards pushing Darlings ahead of the pack. With so many indie rock bands (especially the ones in Darlings’ native Brooklyn) writing from a perspective located somewhere up their own asses, it’s refreshing to hear a band willing to wear their heart on their sleeve, a band willing to write and sing about what matters to them instead of whatever will get them favorable press and a deal with Captured Tracks.
Perfect Trip isn’t exactly perfect, and Darlings have a bit of a ways to go before they can come close to reaching the heights achieved by their heroes. It is an auspicious debut, however, and it’s different enough from the work of Darlings’ peers that it’s worth it to take notice of what they’re doing. Malkmus and company would be proud.