[29 March 2011]
In a slightly better world (for music, anyway), I wouldn’t have to tell most of you who Rival Schools are. Pedals would be as hotly anticipated and warmly received as Superchunk’s recent return to activity, Majesty Shredding, was, if not more so. Because while that was Superchunk’s ninth album, this is only the second one that Rival Schools have produced. They have the pedigree (Quicksand, CIV, Gorilla Biscuits, and so on), 2001’s United By Fate was too blazingly brilliant to be just a cult hit, and they’ve been away for a decade. I have been waiting for this record for literally a third of my life.
But you go to war with the army you have, and more important than Rival Schools’ reputation or profile is that Pedals fully justifies that decade I’ve spent hoping for it, even if it’s different enough from United By Fate that you might think that the band’s been active and growing the whole time. It turns out that frontman Walter Schreifels’ surprisingly sunny, gentle solo bow An Open Letter to the Scene last year was actually a sign of things to come; there aren’t any acoustic tracks or ballads here, but compared to the often crushingly heavy, aggressive tracks that dotted Rival Schools’ debut the likes of “A Parts for B Actors”, “Small Doses”, or even the surging, textured “69 Guns” let a lot of light and shade into the band’s songs. Surprisingly enough, the band also appears to have been listening to some shoe-gaze (the beginning of “Racing to Red Lights” makes me think of Stratford 4’s debut, and “Shot After Shot” is the best hardcore/shoe-gaze hybrid I’ve ever heard), and while there is nothing here quite so dense as “Used for Glue” or “Holding Sand”, the grinding groove of “Choose Your Adventure” or the straightforward blast of opener “Wring It Out” are just as powerful (and sound like they boast an impressive range of, err, pedals).
Pedals, in other words, is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a reunion record from a beloved band. It’s impossible to mistake it for anyone else (hell, even that rapid-fire, dubby baseline on “Wring It Out” ought to put you in mind of United By Schools opener “Travel By Telephone”), but they’ve matured in the best possible sense. This album is both more compact and expansive than the debut, with arguably better melodies and the same hard-won, determined optimism from songs like “Good Things” and “World Invitational” married to an almost autumnal, reflective feel. Schreifels knows exactly what he’s doing when he sings “It’s not easy to start again” on the first song here; there’s a tricky balance between youthful energy and older-brother wisdom that the band nails with aplomb here, and the result is one of the best rock albums anyone’s likely to make in 2011.
I still wish more people would get a chance to hear United By Fate, both because it’s one of the no-fooling best records of the last decade and because I suspect that, as good as the songs here are, they gain an extra layer from seeing just how adroitly Rival Schools have advanced their sound while keeping the best parts of their old work. As much as the songs on United By Fate have serious emotional traction (especially “Undercovers On”), the ones on Pedals are even more powerful at times, with a much more nuanced palette to draw on. The chorus of the closing “The Ghost Is Out There”, for example, manages to be both softly melancholy and euphorically soaring at the same time, while folding in enough imagery to spawn an episode of Fringe or something:
Try to understand
What made them this way
So they don’t feel bad
Floating in space
The ghost is out there
So you’re not alone
Only out there
Maybe I’m just a sucker for simultaneously fleet-footed and heavy, anthemic rock songs that veer towards warm, wry humanism rather than either empty platitudes or snide cynicism, but as far as I’m concerned Pedals’ 35 minutes contains more wisdom and beauty than most records twice its length. Last time out, Rival Schools were slowly swamped by side projects, small misfortunes and public indifference; given the absurdly high level of quality they’ve managed to keep up despite the lengthy hiatus, I fervently hope they can make it stick this time.