It’s no coincidence that Bully take after so many different aspects of 1990s alternative rock, the genre’s fruitful, disparate period when bands danced around the underground and the mainstream, indie labels and majors, experimentalism, and traditional musical values. Rock, moved away from 1980s hair metal and new wave by grunge, indie rock, pop punk and post-rock, had once again finally met a new era of spontaneous, varied artistic deviance at the hands of disillusioned teenagers. Attitude, to a high degree, determined a band’s primary approach: Nirvana, Weezer and Pavement, to name a few, are remembered as much for their unique, distinctive demeanors as anything else.
Bully, removed by 20 years from the era when they would ostensibly be most comfortable, have the advantage of looking back on alt-rock’s golden age with nostalgia and, with that hindsight, seeing how the mingling of youthful attitudes made for a richly creative movement. Their particular strain is an alternative rock of optimism and heart that doesn’t sacrifice the blood, sweat and dirt that the genre requires. Call it rose-colored grunge or grimy indie rock; it’s every bit as youthful, naive and brash as the music of any of their influences, just a bit more on the bright eyed and hopeful side.
The song on Bully’s full-length debut Feels Like in which nostalgia plays the most prominent role — album opener “I Remember” — is also the set’s most high-energy and punk-infused, with frontwoman Alicia Bognanno evoking common images of youthful love and rebellion through gravelly shouts, both the bad (“I remember getting too fucked up”) and the good (“I remember the way your sheets smelled”) overlapping one another in her memory. The guitars offer a punishing, discordant backdrop for Bognanno’s poignant tone to take root, driven home further by a melodic refrain where her vocals transform into an exasperated near-whisper.
The juxtaposition of noisy punk rock sounds and rosy emotion is something Bully return to in infinite ways on Feels Like. “Trash”, as one of the many dynamic, Pixies-indebted tracks on the record, is among the finest examples. The verses swing with a thumping Kim Deal bass line, steady drum beat and subdued vocals before a surge of feedback ushers in the wailing chorus with a beautifully unhinged guitar line and Bognanno’s effortless shout. “Milkman”, meanwhile, is just upbeat and catchy enough to hit classic pop punk territory, especially with lyrics about escaping from anxiety and the complexity of adult life (“I got this feeling that makes me wanna run”) that, alongside the melodic scenery, feel more freeing than confining.
Bully’s exuberant strain of alt-rock is undeniably vintage, but what keeps the music afloat above the familiar jangle guitars and chunky bass lines is that spirited attitude of sunny nostalgia that Bognanno so deftly taps into. It lends a hopeful charm to a classic alt-rock formula so often taken as self-serious and maudlin in contemporary culture. Songs like the bouncy “Brainfreeze”, “Too Tough” and the Breeders-esque “Picture” are dingy enough to appeal to ‘90s purists and yet summery enough to remind them of the clouded-but-innocent optimism that era consistently delivered. It turns out that kind of nostalgia pairs well with the sounds of a decade when youthful passions spawned some of the most interesting rock music in the world. Bully fully understand that, and that’s what makes Feels Like work on a deeper level than just pure nostalgia mining.
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