Let’s Stay Friends, Les Savy Fav’s first record of new material since 2001, finds the band in rare form—polished and with a newfound sense of excitement and purpose. Along with this, the group has matured and realized that this need not be conveyed solely through aggression. You wouldn’t describe them as sedate (2004’s singles compilation Inches showed just how ferocious early LSF could be), but this new album proves Les Savy Fav has the stylistic breadth to tackle more than just unfettered audio assault. Some of the more relaxed art-rock moments on Let’s Stay Friends may require a re-adjustment of long-term fans, but it pays off: the fat guy’s got life in him yet.
The song they’re singing on Let’s Stay Friends—the struggles of an independent band in a messed-up music industry world—isn’t exactly new for independent bands, or even for Les Savy Fav. But more so than many groups, Les Savy Fav has lived that independent spirit fiercely, setting up their own record label, Frenchkiss, which has since discovered at least one band (the Hold Steady) that has outgrown its progenitor’s stature. Tim Harrington’s distinctive shout/sing style has often concealed sturdily poetic imagery. On Let’s Stay Friends, it acquires something of the coherence of a sustained narrative. Narrative? Perhaps diatribe is a more fitting word. There’s little doubt that, despite the often fuck-it-all abandonism of the band’s live reputation, the dominant propulsive force of this album is something akin to anger. “There was a band called Pots & Pans”, Harrington opens up the first song on the album, “They made this noise that people couldn’t stand”. It’s an obvious metaphor for Les Savy Fav themselves, and just like the fictional band in the song, Harrington & co promise this straight up: they’ll keep doing things their way, with their obscure lyrics, rocking art-punk sound—and generally just being obtuse on purpose.
Part of Les Savy Fav’s continuing appeal stems from dichotomies the band builds into its songs: undercurrents that reveal themselves only on repeat listens, ideas that run counter to a song’s initial emotional impact, hidden meanings. “The Equestrian”, the album’s first single, is a typical slice of Les Savy Fav freakout, packed with leather and sweat, the kind of fuel for a real show the way only Harrington can do it: the song cranks itself up into a false refrain of “easy now”, but the whole sense of the song is the opposite—unease. “Scotchguard the Credit Card”, a three-minute slice of art-punk mayhem, contrasts its unhinged instrumental aggression with a much more moderate lyrical message—that ‘present tense living’ is ultimately irresponsible, that we should think more about fiscal responsibility. “The Year Before the Year 2000”, an early highlight, is anti-apocalyptic (“If you fear my dear the end is near / Please do check your frontal hemisphere”), but the music is paranoid, full of guitar jitters and hard-edged menace.
But Let’s Stay Friends isn’t all anger, nor merely another semi-successful attempt at translating a legendary live show onto disc. On this album, the band seems to have embraced the opportunity for greater complexity that the studio offers, allowing them to extend both in the direction of ragged punk and, at times, towards a more sedate art-rock. “Comes and Goes” uses this gentler, more melodic mood to showcase some classic Harrington poetry:
Judging from your pauses on the phone
What’s left unsaid is better left alone
Certainty has been swallowed up by doubt
I guess this is what my folks were always sighing about
You might be surprised by this melodic emphasis, but the band’s skirted this on its more recent singles on Inches, at the least. There’s nothing compromising about it.
So Let’s Stay Friends is a fitting fourth album for Les Savy Fav. Assured and confident in an established style, the band also finds new ways to express its visions of frustration and celebration. Despite its hiatus last year, Les Savy Fav isn’t going anywhere, and that’s the way it should be.