Man, if I had a dollar for every band named after a song by the Smiths, I’d have, ooh, at least a dollar by now. Likewise, if I had a dollar for every band that’s taken their name from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, I’d have exactly the same. Which is to say that I would have earned the grand total of two dollars from Pretty Girls Make Graves if we lived in a world wonderful enough that you could make money simply by bands naming themselves after Smiths’ songs and Kerouac phrases. I would then take my hard-earned two dollars and go buy myself a patent leather headscratcher because I initially didn’t have a clue what to make of Pretty Girls Make Graves’ latest album The New Romance.
Busting out of Seattle from the charred remains of the Murder City Devils and Bee Hive Vaults, Pretty Girls Make Graves were initially pretty easy to pigeonhole. Makers of “intelligent” rock music (read: rock music you can’t dance to at parties), they sounded just like At the Drive In but with a female singer. A novel twist but not one to make them really stand out from the sea of “intelligent” post rock bands and certainly not enough to make me replace my trusty old Railroad Jerk and Brainiac albums. But then their second LP The New Romance comes out and in places it’s an absolute doozy. And in other places it’s bloody awful.
The good things first. Produced by Phil Ek, sonic whiz behind Les Savy Fav and Built to Spill, The New Romance is the sound of a band stretching their creative muscles, experimenting with rhythms and textures to create some truly dynamic moments. When on form, lead singer Andrea Zollo spits out her lyrics with enough lust, anger, disgust and desire to initially conjure up the spirits of Sleater Kinney and Debbie Harry and then exorcise those sprits with her own alarmingly individual swagger. Combined with the band’s complex song structures, stop/start rhythms and heavily treated synthetic sound, the results can be fantastic. The first track “Something Bigger, Something Brighter” is a perfect example, opening with a brooding reverberating guitar line that segues into propulsive rock aggression, then flirts with some Enon-like synths before indulging in a few New Wave handclaps, finally returning to the chilling atmospherics of the intro. It’s a trick of eclecticism they manage to successfully repeat a number of times, from the album’s poppiest moment “This Is Our Emergency” to the deceptively simple chills of the introspective “Blue Lights”. In these places, Pretty Girls Make Graves manage to explore more ideas in a single song than some bands do across entire albums.
Which leads directly to the bad news. The New Romance is also the sound of a band experimenting with so many rhythms and textures that the album gets completely swamped in an “everything plus the kitchen sink” mess. Moments of stark brutality and glacial cool all too frequently mutate into songs so overwrought and over-styled that they sound like refugees from a long forgotten John Hughes teen angst tract (“The Teeth Collector” and “Mr. Club” in particular come across as lame parodies of such eighties’ stalwarts as say, Echo and the Bunnymen or the Cure). Likewise, when not on form, Andrea Zollo sounds just like a poor pastiche X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, spitting out lyrics of such neurotic goth awfulness that I wouldn’t even foist them on an Evanescence fan (“Your poison scabs, coagulated / Your hardest try is never enough / Decay.” Hello “The Teeth Collector”, I’m looking at you again). It’s in moments like these that the sneaking suspicion grows that the band’s ambitious use of light, shade, sound and tone merely conceals an inability to write a simple song.
It’s faintly ridiculous to criticise a band for their overreaching ambition and sonic creativeness. It’s also infuriating that an album so thrilling in parts can grate so much in others; but until Pretty Girls Make Graves manage to translate their furiously compelling live show into a cohesive album, I’m going to buy that headscratcher and programme my stereo to only play the good half of The New Romance.
// Notes from the Road
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