[19 October 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There are plenty of bands trading in ‘80s nostalgia these days, and really it’s kind of a bummer. A lot of those bands deal in shimmer and treble and, like the swaths of tinny ‘80s music they are borrowing from, they forget all about the low-end. Maybe it’s all just to be different, to take something we all thought seriously uncool (even when it was happening) and refashion it to become, well, fashionable. There are bands more successful with it than others, but it seems the haze of the past couple years has cleared into an over-produced gleam that’s doing few bands any favors.
Gauntlet Hair falls into this ‘80s-mining population in some ways, but the band is also a breath of fresh air. For one the duo digs into and twists post-punk into something less jagged and more bouncing. Secondly, and more importantly, they know that if they want us to dance, they best give us a good beat. For all the reverb-soaked vocals and glittering riffs on Gauntlet Hair, there’s plenty of bass and drums to make this stuff thump. So if the attention Gauntlet Hair received for its first few 7-inches was surprising, it is earned, and their first full-length improves on the promise of those singles.
Right from jump, on “Keep Time”, Gauntlet Hair distinguishes itself as different. There’s that banshee howl from singer Andy R that introduces the band’s sweat-soaked vitality, but really it’s Craig Nice’s crashing cymbals beneath it. This isn’t some fey new-wave retread, the band is mashing seemingly disparate sounds around a funky, post-punk guitar riff. The song starts as a lean thumper, but the beat builds into something more muscled, more akin to club music than ‘80s-pop. The song’s closing, however, when the drums come in full strength, is towering and brilliant. There’s a post-rock size to it—for a minute you could throw these guys on a bill with Explosions in the Sky—and by the song’s end, the band has proved their sound unique and compelling.
“Top Bunk” shifts these same strengths into something more spacey and shuffling. In fact, in some ways it calls to mind reggae even as it crashes and clatters with rock urgency. “Lights Out”, the longest song on the record, plays on expectations we’ve built over the start of the record to build tension. Once we get used to those huge drums and thumping bass lines, we want them in droves. This song starts with a basic drum machine, though, and Andy R’s guitar and bleating vocals echo out into space around them. It’s effective but jarring, since you can feel the lack of power, but then somewhere around the three-minute mark the drums crash in and the song takes off and, all of a sudden, you’ve heard the finest moment on the album.
What makes Gauntlet Hair work is that it never falls back on removed posturing. There’s nothing sneering or ironic about. This is all about youthful exuberance. On closer “Speak in Tongues”, Andy R lays out his hopes for any kids he has. “I want a child that breaks the rules, goes to school and then gets the fuck out,” he shouts to close the record, and it doesn’t feel dismissive at all; it feels bracing. In 35 minutes of music, Gauntlet Hair never relents here. These are dance songs, but they’ve got a ragged rock feel to them. They bounce but they also shred in their own, echo-y way.
With all that reverb and echo, though, Gauntlet Hair does run into the same problems as its lesser contemporaries. These parts all ripple out and sometimes muddle each other—in particular on moodier tracks like “My Christ” and “Showing”—so that the feeling is there but the hooks get obscured. Andy R’s vocals sound especially murky here, and most of the time it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s saying. So as exciting as this record is, as much as it challenges other similar bands to step their game up, it’s own love of shimmering layers still ends up holding it back some. Gauntlet Hair are surely a band to keep an eye on, and their first full-length is an exciting listen, but now that they’ve got that rhythm section thumping for us, let’s get some clear choruses to shout along to.