There’s a moment in “CA Viewing”—the second song off the second record from the first band to give women a meaningful place in this post-punk revival brouhaha—where you’re not sure that the song is going to end. Ever. Jenny (as she’s called in the liner notes) has just fallen off a line of the most convincing femme Mark E. Smith ever, and the guitar just starts to twitch, first in tempo and then slower, until you can’t tell if it’s an intermission or a resignation. “Go to Sleep”, all fast and noisy and freaky, charges in before you’re able to decide, but this inescapable moment of ambivalence is perhaps the best allegory for considering At Crystal Palace. The answer to the question is I don’t know. Maybe. Both.
Yes, Erase Errata have matured on At Crystal Palace—an album that’s altogether more complicated than Other Animals—but the real issue is whether you’ve matured along with them. Or maybe mature isn’t the right dynamic: maybe it’s whether they’re still able to speak in a translatable language. Always intent on forsaking approachable melody and linear rhythm, Erase Errata approach At Crystal Palace as an exercise in other abandonments: jive, boogie, sense of humor, sense of innocence, sense of joy. Missing are the times where you want to dance and laugh and nod and wink; or rather, each of those moments also contains its opposite—the overwhelming urge to sit still, frown, shake, close your eyes.
Listeners coming to At Crystal Palace should expect to find a lot of Lilliputian punk: thrashy stuff that beckons the masculine but blends it through a distinctively feminine perspective. Barks and screams give way to churlish, girlish moans and monotone chanting; guitars tortured but not mercilessly, beats attacked sideways but not with malice. No, there’s nothing angry about this stuff at all, which is maybe what makes it such a curiosity. There’s no anger, but there’s not exactly love either. There’s not passion, or spite, or fever, or anything exactly. I’m not sure what to feel when listening to it.
There are moments of unadulterated sass (good): the short ‘n’ sweet “Flippy Flop”, a minor twinged grungy prance, the funkiest bit of arty punk this side of Liars. “Owls” has a similar overwhelming effect with its insistence on shock and awe, Jenny repeating “Attack! Attack!” as a bass line charges across upbeats, guitars agitating to break free. “Ease on Over” is pointed, biting, intense. “A Thief Detests the Criminal Elements of the Ruling Class” is also gloriously cerebral, off-kilter, and refreshingly tactical, Jenny counting backwards, singing against rhythm, at one point actually breaking into an almost diva-like croon. Bianca at the drums is speedy and wild. The silences and paring down of instrumentations are expert. The tension is palpable.
But I can’t help being unconvinced. More than repetitive lyrical passages that pepper “The Most Familiar” (“if I’m good, if I’m really, really good” seems to be sung over and over); more than the right minor chords and attacking bass lines; more than esoteric lyrical passages—I need something more. I need an in, a hook, a reason to care, a compelling argument. And that’s what I find so difficult, so confounding, about Erase Errata. The formula is all right, but somehow it comes out all wrong. Or rather, not even so offensive as to be wrong. It’s just simply… there.