[25 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Back in 2011, Flashlights put out I’m Not Alone, the Florida outfits first full record. It was a scrappy, scratched-up affair full of blistering guitars and crashing drums and vocals shouting plaintively to be heard through the fray. It was a way overlooked indie-rock gem full of furious energy and, under all the distortion and volume, sweet pop sensibilities.
But on Bummer Summer all that has changed. The production has shifted towards clean tones and subtle layers, and Flashlights brought Frightened Rabbit members Scott Hutchison and Andy Monaghan in to man the boards. The result is a major shift for the band. With their first record, many compared them to the likes of early Superchunk. Well, Bummer Summer is a bit like if Superchunk followed-up their scrappy eponymous debut with the lush Indoor Living. If the emotion is still raw and youthful, the music here makes it clear that Flashlights, as a band, has done some growing up quickly.
Opener “Failure”, from the title on down, lays bare the neurosis and worry at the heart of this record. “This is not the bed I remember making,” singer Terry Caudill admits at the start of the song, after a sweeping wall of guitars, distant keys, and crashing cymbals lead us into the song. The song retains the propulsion of I’m Not There, but hooks slash with precision and Caudill’s vocals are up in the mix, clear and pleading. If this is maybe a leaner take of what we’ve heard before from the band, the expansive ending of the song is where things open up. Soft riffs clear out space that the band fills in with rumbling drums, strident group vocals, and soaring guitars. It’s an inversion of the tension from the past record. Instead of piling on, the band stretches out, and the results are immediate but also nuanced.
Songs like “Don’t Take Me Seriously” and “Bottle Kids” take this newfound skill with layering and filter it into tighter pop structures. The first of these songs clears out the distortion and lets clean guitars glide through the verse while Caudill softens his voice into something more hushed and confessional, at least until the excellent breakdown where he breaks into a rasping howl over powerful drums. “Bottle Kids” is a bit more up front with its fury, but the keyboard work that handles the melodies in the song smudges the edges of it nicely. In these moments, we see what Flashlights can do with patience. They don’t go for broke from jump, but instead build to moments of chaos, of volume, of crescendo. A Caudill wanders lovelorn through these songs—in search of connection at every turn, or looking to keep connection that may be fraying—the songs give us all the emotions that go along with that. There’s raw nerve here but there’s also reticence, innocent romance, carnality, and exhaustion that can be either sweet or crushing. If the songs deal quite a bit with relationships and personal politics, it’s the music that adds a layer of complication to these songs. Caudill himself is a clever singer and lyricist. If he tries to convince us, halfway through the record, that “sometimes it’s hard to speak”, the frenetic, packed lines of his songs suggest otherwise, or at least suggest the spinning mind that won’t form those tangled thoughts into effective speech.
You can hear something of Frightened Rabbit’s combination of overcast mood and lush shimmer in some of these songs, especially on the slow build of “Islands” or the towering close of final track “Blue Dream”. But this isn’t so much prescriptive from the producers as a natural progression of Flashlights sound as they shift the focus to their pop sensibilities. The band’s confidence in the sweet melodies it has created helped the group create new kinds of intricacies in these songs. The band uses that new approach to try and slow things down some here, especially on the second half of the record. “Islands” grinds forward for nearly five minutes, while “April 24th” adds some piano and keyboard over an acoustic guitar, but even with its layered vocals in the end, it’s a moment of sparseness on a full-to-the-rung record.
That song in particular highlights one of the clearer charms of the record. Caudill pines over the idea of holding a hand, and when he claims “every day I love you more,” it feels not like another admission of love, but maybe the first one. There something both comforted and surprised in Caudill’s voice as he says it. This may fly in the face of, say, when he tells someone elsewhere in the record, “I know you wanna fuck me,” but “April 24th” seems to scrape away the defensive crudeness and even sexuality of that moment to reveal a very real, very believable sweetness at the core of this record. By and large, Bummer Summer works best when they whip up these lush pop songs into propulsive anthems. The slower moments, especially “Islands”, tend to drag on and feel overly serious on a record that is at its best when it deals in the ebullient personality of the band. This is a big step forward and wonderful second record for Flashlights. It’s an album that took risks with an already successful formula, and those risks yielded some dynamic results.