[28 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ali Koehler used to drum for Vivian Girls and Best Coast. Listening to her new project, Upset, that information will come as no surprise. But, oddly, though her new band recalls her former bands—especially the latter—it doesn’t borrow on their aesthetic, or even really their specific sound. Upset isn’t as deliberately gauzy as Vivian Girls. It’s also not as self-conscious in its ethos as Best Coast. In fact, Koehler smartly aligned herself with drummer Patty Schemel (formerly of Hole) and guitarist Jenn Prince (from La Sera), to mix up textures and sounds here. As a result, the best stuff on She’s Gone recall ‘90s indie rock and pop-punk in the best, most timeless way possible, even if some of it still gets bogged down in the past.
The trio can certainly churn out blistering punky energy. The title track, a seemingly sweet but acidic tune, finds the bass rippling up and down behind slashing chords, while Koehler alternatively demands (“What do you want from me?”) and condemns (“You both have everything”) before Prince brings her frustration to life on a grinding guitar solo. “Game Over” has the same kind of fatigued annoyance, when Koehler half-whispers “I don’t care where you go, / It’s not my business” while the band cranks out a sunburst chug of straight-ahead beat and big power chords. Songs like the poppy “Let it Go” and breakneck “You and I” pick the pace up even a bit more, pushing the album into the kind of controlled, sugary chaos the Ramones made their name on.
In these moments, Upset isn’t reinventing the wheel, or necessarily distancing themselves from other past-minded punk bands working right now, but damned if they aren’t doing that well-worn genre sweet justice. These moments become all the better when you juxtapose them against the songs where Upset deviates from the formula. “Oxfords and Wingtips” is a moody turn, with Pierce’s minor-key guitar work recalling something closer to Buffalo Tom than Juliana Hatfield. There’s more than a little regret here—“Every drink makes me think of the day,” Koehler sings, “I gave you pills till you faded away”—and the song reflects the weight of it perfectly. Schemel’s drums are heavy but sturdy, creating both space and thickness on the track, both doubled by the bass work here. “About Me” continues the same bittersweet worry of its predecessor, albeit in a more basic vocabulary. “You think you know so much about me,” Koehler repeats over the rippling grey layers of the track before the chorus mocks you with “No thank you” over and over again. As in, she doesn’t need your definition.
And yet, that idea of how we define ourselves and where those definitions come from is central to the record. If She’s Gone, something has left with her, something the person who has been left needs to reconcile with. In other moments, Koehler smartly vacillates between concern for what others think and refusal to comply to what others see her as. This struggle comes up in social settings, in romantic relationships, in moments of solitary. It’s a necessary struggle for post-college men and women to have, and it’s best when rendered in that context.
Some of She’s Gone, unfortunately, is too interested in tying these questions of identity to tired images of high school. The mean girls trope of “Queen Frostine” is poppy but flat as it’s a version of high school we’ve heard about plenty already and, in this black-and-white rendering, feels not only inaccurate but timid compared to kinds of bullying that actually go on. Similarly, opener “Back to School” plays on anxieties that Koehler herself clearly has distance from and, instead of leaving them behind, borrows on them for easy images to appeal to a young audience, while “Don’t Lose Your Dinosaur” has the kind of don’t-give-up message that is admirable but decidedly adolescent.
These may be the moments that link too closely and too blandly to Koehler’s musical past, but luckily Upset spends more time moving away from those than getting stuck in them. Despite these bumps in the road, She’s Gone is a thoroughly catchy, energetic, and sometimes fascinating rock record, the kind of great start that makes you think this band has a lot more to say going forward. In the end, Upset’s future may end up brighter than the bands in Koehler’s past, once it fully forges its own path.