The Mezzanines’ messy, lo-fi, indie pop may belong back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, but dismissing the trio as purveyors of a bygone craze would be a mistake. There might not be anything revolutionary about the Champaign, Illinois group’s sophomore effort Underground Aces, but it’s a fun pop music listen nonetheless. The slacker drawl of singer/guitarist Mark Baldwin, formerly of Lovecup, infuses an impish charm into the guitar-sludge backing of each track.
The album starts with the noise segment “Riches” before launching into “Fatigued”, which instantly distinguishes Baldwin as a warped, romantic soul. Few other guys with guitars would pay tribute to the objects of their affection with lines like “Runaways are beautiful” or “She’s always just around”. But Baldwin is nothing if not a pragmatic narrator: “I am so intrigued / She is so fatigued / I love fatigued girl”.
There’s a strange romanticism running throughout Underground Aces that is hard to pin down. It’s there in the music, so roughly recorded that the guitar, bass, and drums bleed together to form a blanket of sound. That’s the gist of it—unlike Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”, the Mezzanines’ sound is more like a “blanket of sound”: warm, enveloping, comforting. While it’s a bit messy, it’s never less than prettily melodic.
While the Mezzanines’ sound is consistent, it’s not homogeneous or boring. “Nothing to It” has a laidback tempo and countrified guitar, while “I Have Panic” has the nervous, punky energy of vintage garage rock. On the latter, Baldwin remains sweetly calms as he recites lines like, “There’s something to be said for taste / No respect for you because you’re a waste / You and I we don’t think the same / I’m on top of the world / And you’ve got no name”.
There are semi-ballads in the form of “The Mystery” and “She’s Still It”, and the mid-tempo “Hold Me Close Now” sounds sweet but contains the refrain, “Hold me close now / The one with the gun / Is the one with the most now”. If this sounds too self-consciously ironic, Baldwin seems to be as in on the joke as anyone, singing on a track thoughtfully named “Creative Temperament”: “I’m breathing in with each stale breath / Disappointment felt by everyone / I might as well relive the past / Because everyone else resigned to this crap”.
The Mezzanines have drawn lots of comparisons, to other acts, including Pavement, Flaming Lips, T. Rex, Guided By Voices, Hum, Lou Barlow, and Television Personalities. Let’s agree that’s irrelevant, however, and leave it at this: if you’ve ever shut yourself away in a stuffy bedroom with a turntable or radio, if you enjoy pining away over lost loves or good times past, if you like guitars, and if you don’t mind under-produced recordings, the Mezzanines might just hit the spot for you.