No Strangers to Noise Pop Craft
Antipodes (noun): 1. Australia and New Zealand (used by inhabitants of the northern hemisphere). 2. The direct opposite of something else.
Hey kiddos, were you too young to catch Hüsker Dü live and in the flesh? Were you just a glimmer in your parents’ eyes when the Pixies were dominating alternative rock in the late ‘80s? Didn’t get a chance to appreciate Nirvana before Kurt Cobain made a mess of his grey matter? Were clueless about My Bloody Valentine until well after the fact? Well, Generation Y, have I got the record for you! You see, there’s this three-piece band called Popstrangers out of New Zealand that is issuing its debut album after releasing several singles on the lauded Flying Nun label, and it’s a stunner. It’s called Antipodes and it should cement the group as a force in the noise pop spectrum and easily be their breakthrough album. Combining elements of all of the bands I’ve listed above, if not sounding like a scuzzier version of Australian cousins Tame Impala, Antipodes is one of those LPs that has a true sonic arc to it: it just gets better and better as it goes along, let alone the more you listen to it. There must be something in the water in New Zealand, as there’s some real talent coming out there nowadays: there’s another great band called Opposite Sex that released a self-titled debut album recently that’s probably a more poppier, yet just as arty affair as Popstranger’s debut. Take these two bands together, and you have something to really get excited about.
But back to Popstrangers. The group is comprised of Joel Flyger, Adam Page and David Larson, and they formed back in 2009. They recorded Antipodes in a studio located in the basement of a 1930s dancehall, which would seem to be a very non-apropos setting for an album that is loud, rough around the edges and overall just flat out awesome. (I’m not saying that dancehall music isn’t awesome, but it’s a very different genre and completely opposite from what Popstrangers are mining.) This is simply a huge, speaker-rattling album. When I played second single “What Else Could They Do” on my computer (I got a digital download of the record) with the volume set at 80 percent high – yes, not turned up quite all the way, but close – the keys on my keyboard literally started rattling and shaking as my fingers rested upon them. That’s how sonically dense and powerful this record really is. This is a group that is out to dominate and simply just blow away the competition, and while there’s certainly familiar elements to this record – first single “Heaven”, likely my favorite thing on Antipodes – actually could even be described as Beatles-esque, if we’re talking about the Beatles somewhere around “Helter Skelter”, there’s enough heavy guitar distortion and thick reverb on Flyger’s vocals to make this something that is otherworldly at the same time. As the band recently told the Alternative Jukebox Web site, Antipodes is “kind of a warped pop record. Someone described us recently as ‘psych pop’, which I think is a fair description.”
That sense of warping is evident on the album’s very first song, “Jane”, which is about as far away from the Barenaked Ladies (they have a song with the same title) as you can get. “Jane” starts out with a sustained keyboard chord before the rest of the band kicks in, with the guitars turned to the same guitar tone that Joey Santiago uses, before briefly turning into bracing white noise, and then erupting into a chorus that’s ripped right out of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes”, before alternating and ping-ponging between these elements. It’s an adventurous set-up for what the rest of the album will bring. I’m going to zip ahead a bit to “Heaven”, the aforementioned first single, which is a full two-and-a-half minutes of pure power pop bliss. Sounding like a rougher take on Matthew Sweet’s brand of jangle pop, “Heaven”, despite the fact that Popstrangers are now the 1,032,353rd band on the planet to use that as a song title, it’s a sticky sweet track with riffable guitar chords and seemingly sing-a-long lyrics, despite the fact it’s hard sometimes to really make out what’s being said. It’s a divine moment, and I think “Heaven” will go down as one of the best songs released all year long. Meanwhile, “What Else Could They Do” starts out with some very atonal guitars and cymbal-heavy drums, the complete opposite of the poppy aspect of “Heaven”, but it turns into a startling catchy number that crawls deep into your brain and scrubs it out with a Brillo pad. It’s a very Nirvana-like song in some respects, if the song married elements of the chorus of “Heart-Shaped Box” with the abrasive stew of “Endless, Nameless”.
“Full Fat” is another song with an instantly memorable opening hook, before turning into a psychedelic riff fest. “Now it’s possible,” sings Flyger as though even he believes in the transcendent nature of the material. The song is slippery, and offers a bevy of chords that stick to you like an insect on flypaper. “Roy Brown” almost could pass for a Cure song in an alternate universe, as the guitars reach for that same tone that Robert Smith often employs. And then, for a brief moment, the guitars shred in such a fashion that it’ll make the paint or wallpaper peel off your walls, but the song itself, for the most part, is dream-like and tremendous. Simply unforgettable. I could go on here, but the point is, I don’t think there’s an all out “bad” song to be found on Antipodes. It builds from strength to strength, and each and every song has something profound to offer. It’s clear that these three guys love and appreciate noise pop and took a great deal of care and attention in bringing their very best songs to the table. It’s no surprise that this album is being released on Carpark, also home to Cloud Nothings, but as great as Attack on Memory was, and let’s not forget that it received generally high marks on most Best of 2012 album lists, Antipodes surpasses it in every measure. Antipodes is more full bodied, and feels more like a traditional album (at only eight songs and almost 34 minutes long, Attack on Memory did feel a bit on the short side).
While the dictionary definition of the word “antipode”, listed above, suggest something that is opposite in nature to whatever else is out there, I would sense that that might be a bit of hyperbole on Popstrangers’ part in naming this album such. There are various references to other bands sprinkled throughout this album, and I will concede that it doesn’t bristle with overt originality. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Popstrangers more than successfully take all of these elements from other groups you know and love, and stirs them together in an appeasable soup, a brilliant melange of styles that ultimately comes out of the wringer sort of sounding something like their own. While Popstrangers do employ the usual soft verses and loud choruses aesthetic of the Pixies and Nirvana, it does so to an effect that doesn’t feel old and tired. The hooks and riffs are just so, so pummelling and intoxicating, it’s as though every element of this record was plotted and constructed to maximum effect. And yet, Antipodes is an all out effortless feeling effort, with a natural flow that feels almost as though it was pulled out of a magician’s hat. There might not be a better LP that feels like an LP front to back released this year, and there’s a natural climax to this record that culminates in a nearly seven-minute workout in the form of “Occasion”. So you’ll have to deeply forgive me kiddos: I’m quite a little bit older than you, but I want to excuse myself to play and enjoy this record all over again without wearing my critical hat. And, for you? You’ve got yourself a breathtaking hallmark that completely belongs to your generation. Enjoy this one, Millennials. Popstrangers just made a landmark album directly for you, and you’ll get to tell your future grandkids where you were when you first heard Anitpodes.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More