OK, so only about a million bands cite Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted as a musical touchstone. And yes, Seattle’s the Lights can and do count themselves as one of those bands. But, to their credit, the Lights’ debut LP, Beautiful Bird, is more than just an aping of Malkmus and Co.‘s seminal disc. In a brief 28 minutes, the Lights have put themselves on the short list for post-punk worth seeking out.
With the aforementioned brisk running time—almost literally “running”; the band’s take on post-punk rarely slows to a trot—it’s impressive how much the Lights can cram into a song and still not have a wasted note. And all three bandmembers—guitarist/vocalist Craig Chambers, bassist/vocalist Jeff Albertson, and drummer P.J. Rogalski—get a chance to break a sweat, especially Rogalski, who might be relegated to timekeeper duties with another band, but here is the star of tracks like the opener, “Ice Course”, and “Your Boyfriend Has a Pretty Machine”.
Similarly, bassist Albertson earns his paycheck on “I’m a Dangerous Snake” and “Hawaii”. And, in the interest of mentioning everyone’s shining moments, Chambers is at his best on the paranoid plink of “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now” and the bluesy “Trapped Like a Trap Inside a Trap”. Of course, individual contributions do not always a cohesive unit make. Fortunately, the band has learned the very necessary art—especially in a noisy post-punk band—of playing against each other, not on top of one another. For all their busyness, the songs are, by and large, sparse. Some of that can be attributed to producer Erik Blood, but the band itself provides a kernel of the concept of spareness.
“Ice Course”, one of Beautiful Bird‘s most dissonant tracks, threatens to fall apart by dint of its shambling (lack of) structure, but it never does (again, mostly thanks to Rogalski’s kit). It’s all good if you’re down with that whole careening off the rails vibe (My thoughts? OK in small doses). To these ears, the Lights fare better when they lock into (what passes for them) as a groove. “Victims of the Pleasure of the Sense of Hearing” lyrically amounts to little more than Chambers reciting the wordy title, but it cleverly runs inverse from how one would expect a song with such a title to play out. It opens with only the bare essentials of an angular guitar and maracas, then builds to a full, almost funky, groove. By playing against each other (ya’ gotta hear it to grasp the notion), the band pulls the song to greater heights than if they had just torn into it with reckless abandon.
The Lights catch their breath on the comparatively laid-back “Hawaii”. Since I namedropped Pavement way back in the opening paragraph, think “No Tan Lines”. (And as long we’re talking titles, there’s “Righteous Anchor”, which is both Malkmus-clever [anchor, anger, ha] and reminiscent of his tendency to pull two words out of the dictionary and craft a song title, something along the lines of “Sin Taxi”. Just sayin’ is all.) Where were we? Oh yeah, the Lights doing their best musical work in the groove. It’s probably the least representative of their body of work, but I’m all about “Trapped Like a Trap Inside a Trap”. The band drops the noisy post-punk ethos and makes like a de-swamped Black Keys. It’s off-kilter enough to be their song, but everything still clicks.
Beautiful Bird is hardly a manifesto, and in 2016, some hungry young freelancer probably won’t open a review with “OK, so only about a million band cite the Lights’ Beautiful Bird as a musical touchstone.” Nevertheless, the Lights are off to a good start.