Afflicted with a juvenile and largely misleading name, this Asheville, North Carolina, quartet seems to have taken measures to conceal on paper what they’re really like. You shouldn’t let the fact that a band member’s being credited as playing “lap steel” fool you; DrugMoney doesn’t play alt-country. And the fact that their debut has been co-produced with Wharton Tiers, best known for his work channeling the guitar noise of Sonic Youth, Helmet, and Unsane, shouldn’t lead you to believe that the band plays experimental post-rock or off-time math metal. In truth, DrugMoney offers no-nonsense “modern rock” à la bands like Foo Fighters and Bush (with occasional acoustic touches to perhaps remind us of their “roots”).
As is obvious from leader Fisher Meehan’s first snarling vocal whine, Nirvana furnishes his band’s musical boilerplate: he hews to hooky melodies with a rugged, more or less convincing ferocity, while sluggish guitars thick with distortion trudge through satisfyingly familiar chord progressions. The result? Songs not especially memorable but fairly fulfilling while they’re playing. It wasn’t that long ago that every band was trying to pull this off, but now it seems nostalgic: pop culture has become so accelerated that DrugMoney could be marketing itself as a ‘90s retro band. Many of their songs bring back the dubious pleasures of one-hit-wonder bands like the Presidents of the United States of America or Better Than Ezra.
On Mtn Cty Jnk, the crisp, one-high-note riff and the dynamic shifts between verse and chorus of the opening track, “I Know”, are instantly appealing, radio-friendly circa 1995, and the following “Small Thinking”, with its acoustic guitars and orchestrated strings, makes for a nice contrast, showcasing DrugMoney’s ability in both angsty and melancholy modes. Both feature the signature Cobain move of beginning in a subdued, near narcoleptic voice before yelping with impassioned lack of restraint, all while the music continues on indifferently, adding a poignancy to the singer’s supposed desperation. When they stick to these sorts of formulas, DrugMoney is effective in the same way a generic pain-reliever is; through no-frills copying of a branded product, it fulfills its aims efficently. Here the goals are to coax you to bob your head in rhythm and experience the subadrenal rush that comes with a well-turned chorus, and Mtn Cty Jnk proves DrugMoney can accomplish them with proficient ease.
If only they were content with that considerable achievement—it’s no small feat to credibly resuscitate that moribund genre. The problem comes when they get more ambitious, and they cast around for some sonic feature that could brand them with a distinct, recognizable sound. As with their annoyingly voweless album title (not to mention their run-together name), a likely attempt to attract unearned attention through sheer typography, DrugMoney seeks out applique quirks to cloak the essential anonymity of their achievement. Consequently, many songs open with strained flourishes: the muffled vocal loop at the beginning of the otherwise succinct and engaging “Rough & Tumble” (which also features the aforementioned lap steel, in what has to be one of its least countrified uses ever); the superfluous pseudo-Japanese lick that opens “Anyway”, along with the garbage-truck-in-reverse alarm noise that persists throughout; the distorted, spoken words malingering behind the actual singing, mucking up the sweetly minor-keyed “Stars”; the dingy organ that sinks slowly developing “D.M.D.” before it can kick in. These touches convey aspirations to slickness on an album that already might be a bit too facile for its own good.
What makes loose, sloppy bands appealing despite themselves is the palpable sense that they are wrestling with their limited musical ideas (not to mention their instruments), trying to wrench out something new, showing that trying to reinvent the wheel can really be hopeful and touchingly sympathetic. In the struggle, the tired themes of love and self-discovery seem almost new, and our own inevitable efforts to pursue them are thereby dignified. But when DrugMoney smoothes out the struggle, and cycles through the themes and musical ideas that push rock fans’ emotional buttons with the confident, actuarial calculation of an insurance salesman, the sense of our uniqueness is effaced even as the well-produced guitar tones and vocal growls massage us into pleasure, and we are brought to face how easily as listeners we can be programmed.
By recalling indie rock’s finest commercial hour, the band reminds you how success fomented the genre’s ruin. What made Nirvana so captivating was how their confidence was continually undermined by a nagging embarrassment they seemed to feel and by the intensity with which they tore into the complacency of their own targeted audience. They made the callow contradiction of being victimized by success and tormented by satisfaction seem believable, made it resonate with the contradictions average people confront. DrugMoney offers no solace for such conflictedness; their hooks have none of the tension that should fuel them, which leaves you with the same feeling you get when you discover you’ve spent eight hours playing Xbox, or wasted an afternoon watching a Behind the Music marathon. You’re moved, and a bit ashamed about having been affected by something so strangely empty.