[13 June 2010]
It is pretty much gospel, at this point, that sophomore albums are sticky business. Still, it’s particularly disheartening to catch the phrase “and then it stopped being fun” three paragraphs into Los Angeles quartet the Deadly Syndrome’s bio. The four year-old band, easily one of the most buzzed about to burst onto the scene during the Silverlake mini-quake of 2007, quickly and deservedly gained a reputation as an incendiary live act. Their debut LP, The Ortolan, was an exuberant, carnivalesque affair that rightly won them comparisons to Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire. Comedian/director Bobcat Goldthwait was so enamored of the group that he prominently featured their song “I Hope I Become a Ghost” in his suicide comedy World’s Greatest Dad.
Still, as any Big Star fan will tell you, critical acclaim rarely translates into monetary gain. It appears that pesky normal people issues like health insurance and day jobs squashed the dudes’ vibe big time. In their world, 27 is way too old to stay up all night playing for peanuts and crashing on puky couches. Beset on all sides by crippling quarter life crises, the broke and beaten down gentlemen of the Deadly Syndrome pulled a Bon Iver and headed for the sticks in hopes of conjuring up some absent magic.
Nolens Volens is the album the band has finally emerged with, and the title may or may not be Latin for “difficult second album”. While it’s refreshing to see a band unafraid of embracing its blue mood, the album is a frustrating and occasionally joyless listening experience punctuated by flashes of brilliance.
While it’s true that adolescent malaise has yielded some of the finest confessional songwriting of the last century, the Deadly Syndrome appear particularly hamstrung by their existential dilemmas. Although the band is clearly grappling with the restlessness of young adulthood, the lyrical evidence is sparse. The album begins with the timid acoustic ballad “Villain”, where singer Chris Richards warily intones “Why don’t you fuck off and die / Do you need anything?” Is Richards calling out himself or his audience? The answer is never clear. The music is decidedly downcast and foreboding, but the author remains concealed, and while the album boasts ten tracks, only seven feature full lyrical content.
For a band that built its reputation on sound and fury, it’s surprising to find so little of either here. When the full band is finally introduced in proper halfway through “Doesn’t Matter”, one is reminded of what made this band so buzzworthy in the first place. While Richards sings about apathetically sleeping his days away, Jesse Hoy’s gloriously unhinged drumming explodes all over the track, while Will Etling unleashes the first of many stinging guitar leads. The indie pop nugget “Wingwalker” benefits from some tuneful harmonies and a tricky time signature, while the twitchy “Deer Trail Place” evokes memories of vintage Modest Mouse.
Despite whatever personal travails the members of the Deadly Syndrome might have endured while recording Nolens Volens, the album’s somber tone isn’t a huge departure for the band. For all of its exuberance, The Ortolon still contained a fair amount of pastoral folk. This time around, however, the quieter songs seem to evaporate in a haze of unrealized ideas. Acoustic ballads pass by lifelessly or take unexpected left turns. It’s as if the band, in an attempt to re-energize their sound, became stymied and in turn suffocated much of the material. It’s easy to picture the band members sitting around said rural cabin, passively plucking their instruments, searching for inspiration that never arrives. “After Work” drifts by inoffensively enough until it passes into a lazy coda that makes Midlake sound like LCD Soundsystem. From the outset, “Party City” promises to be a brazen, Built to Spill-style romp until Richards shows up two minutes in, spits a few lines about morning after regret, and then shuts the party down prematurely. After several unfocused dirges, the album climaxes with “Heresy”, a throbbing instrumental track that plods through seven uneventful minutes until Richards chirps in, at the very last moment with, “The best secrets are kept / And it’s heresy / But it’s what happens next…”
What happens next is the million dollar question for the Deadly Syndrome. They’ve released Nolens Volens without the aid of a label and, to date, have not scheduled any shows to support the album. This album is an unfortunate release for a band that is clearly struggling to ascend to a level where they’ll be able to make a living off of their art, but there’s very little here to set the Deadly Syndrome apart from any other indie rock outfit with a prayer and a song.