Listening to Cartel when you’re out of your 20s is like watching Showgirls with your parents at any age: Technically, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it still feels awkward and less-than-right. On the full-length follow-up to this year’s debut Ransom EP, the Atlanta quartet play spunky, wide-eyed, self-described “pop-punk” of a strictly adolescent variety. That’s cool. More importantly, though, Chroma features only two great pieces of disposable teenage frustration (“angst” is too strong a word to use for this band) and a bunch of merely adequate ones.
The tracklist alone could’ve been pulled from Pop-Punk for Dummies: “Say Anything”. “Runaway”. “Burn This City”. “If I Fail”. When, on “Matter of Time”, Will Pugh sings, “Pack our bags and get away / They’re catching on to us”, you have to imagine he’s referring to his parents’ having discovered that he’s sneaking out through his bedroom window on weeknights. Actually, Chroma mentions “They” quite a lot, with the general message being that they are not very fair.
Of course, all this is said with chug-chug-chugging guitars on the verses and surging power chords on the choruses. And with Pugh’s predictably nasal vocals—imagine an adolescent version of Brian Molko from Placebo. The production is pristine and just how you’d want it to sound blasting out of your stereo. The guitars are loud but smooth; the snare crackles; the toms thunder; everything’s nice and clean.
On those couple times the songwriting measures up to the concept, Cartel are exhilarating. “Say Anything” kicks the album off with a blast of melody. “Luckie St.” employs a hardcore, doubletime beat and adrenaline-pumping guitars. In both cases, the verses are just an excuse to get to the choruses, which feel like cold air rushing past your face while you’re cruising around with friends on a do-nothing night. Actually, that’s exactly what “Luckie St.” is about.
Too much of Chroma gets tangled up in those chugging guitar lines and bogged down in undistinguished choruses. You have to have a couple punk rock ballads on your album these days, and both of them here are lame. Some late-going tries at unorthodox production touches—cannonfire drums and sweeping acoustic guitar on “The Minstrel’s Prayer” and a pseudo-techno coda on “A”—are commendable but ineffective. Just ‘cause Green Day’s writing multi-part song-suites doesn’t mean everyone has to.
The highlights of Chroma suggest that Cartel might yet have a consequential album in them. They just need some different reading material.