It’s funny how much difference a little piano can make on a rock record. If it weren’t for the band’s predilection for jazzy counterpoint piano lines, Koufax‘s Social Life might be difficult to distinguish from the recorded output of hundreds of other high energy indie and garage rock bands. But with the piano, Koufax are iconoclasts, recalling some of the least hipster-friendly music of the last 25 years while still managing to sound contemporary.
Koufax are a five-year-old band from Detroit, featuring Rob Suchan on guitar and vocals, Ben Force on bass, Dave Shettler on drums, and Jared Rosenberg on (there it is) piano and keyboards. Social Life is the band’s second album, and the second time they’re plying their wares on Vagrant Records, home of more emo and guy rock than you can shake a stick at. But Koufax doesn’t follow either of these templates, which bodes well for them.
Social Life‘s first track, “Let Us Know”, gets the band’s early-‘80s singer-songwriter influences on the table right away—there’s lots of plink-plonk piano, stop-start guitars riffs, heavily punched vocal lines and even a lyric that talks about someone being “seventeen on the run”. But while the sum of such parts could turn out to be something pretty awful, as a total package it actually becomes something really fun and catchy; and, most importantly, not cheesy and grimace-inducing at all. Part of that may be attributed to the vocal stylings, which seem more based in indie rock than the singer-songwriter tradition. Koufax may claim Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello as their heroes, frontman Rob Suchan’s matter-of-fact, half-sung/half-talked vocals remind me more of those of indie rock icon Stephen Malkmus (well, if the Malk could be bothered to ever actually push his vocals to the front of the mix). And chalk the other part up to intelligent lyrics, adept storytelling, and a willingness to subvert rock conventions.
Koufax seem to have a bit of a geographic identity crisis. Though they’re based in Detroit, their album’s title track, “Social Life”, seems to demonstrate a preference for the frenetic pace of the New York scene, as they recall “a mischievous New York night time”. The song even starts out with that Strokes-like recorded-in-a-wind-tunnel sound. The lyrics are spit out with hardly a pause for breath, and include lines like “Now we’ve got to get back to the city / We could care less if it is costly / There are those two streets in Brooklyn / And it’s Lou Reed lyrics as living”. And “Social Life” isn’t the only song that exhibits New York bad boy-type tendencies.
“Adultery” is especially fun, wherein the protagonist is carrying on an affair with a “Mrs. Robinson” with two kids. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the song, though, is that while it partly revels in “fucked morality” the lyrics simultaneously betray weariness with the sordidness of the whole thing, proclaiming that it’s “only the sin that’s the attraction” for the woman. It’s these kinds of contradictions that lift the songs beyond typical rocker posturing.
For the most part, the songs on Social Life follow the high-energy template, with catchy choruses, speedy guitars riffs, big drums, and crashes down on the piano keys throughout. “Brightside” follows a slightly different path, starting with a cheerful toy piano-sounding riff, and showing off some noodle-y bass lines and gentler vocals. It’s more subdued than the rest of the album, but shows Koufax to be equally adept at slowing their tempos down and taking a more reflective tone.
Social Life ends with “So Long to Good Times”, an appropriately piano-centered send-off with a march tempo, some unusual musical flourishes and “ba ba ba” background vocals. All in all, pretty sharp stuff for a piano band.