Athens, Georgia’s Gold-Bears belong to an older breed of indie rock bands: one that’s more record store than iTunes library, more fanzine than blog, and if we’re talking indie pop, more Black Tambourine and Jesus & Mary Chain than Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit. Hell, the name of their album’s first song is “Record Store”. In fact, it just happens to be the strongest track on their debut album, Are You Falling in Love? It’s a record that turns over few new leaves in the realm of indie rock, but reminds us that rackety guitars, a lo-fi sensibility, and heart-on-sleeve songwriting can do great things when brought together. Bonus points if that record comes out on an oh-so-fitting label, which in this case, it has.
Slumberland, an Oakland, California-based label, had been hibernating (pun intended) through most of the early 2000s, after releasing a slew of seminal indie pop records in the late ’80s and ’90s, most notably from groups like Boyracer, Velocity Girl, and the aforementioned racket-rock heroes, Black Tambourine. The label went on temporary hiatus in the early 2000s, but found a strong second wind behind a slew of new discoveries, most notably Brooklyn’s Crystal Stilts and Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Are You Falling in Love? is a record that was destined to warrant comparisons to the latter from the moment it was conceived. Like Pains, Gold-Bears specialize in ramshackle indie pop that’s musically familiar and lyrically vulnerable.
“Record Store” is a fine opening statement for Gold-Bears. In an album full of pop songs, this crash-pop surge is easily the catchiest, and yes, its overwrought narrative set in an independent record store. Like Surfer Blood’s “Swim” or Pains’ “Young Adult Friction”, “Record Store” already sounds like this young indie rock band’s signature song, their best bet to notoriety outside of indie rock circles. Not far behind is the melody laden “All Those Years”, which keeps the giddy racket going at near breakneck speed.
With the vocals often mixed several levels below the instruments, it’s frequently a challenge to pick up more than half of vocalist Jeremy Underwood’s lyrics. When you can pick them out through all the chime and jangle, there’s a sincere, off the cuff, out of the diary (Tumblr blog?) feel to them. Underwood is a front man prone to starting songs with “Fuck my life” (see the title track) or, even better, “Last night after sex / I was lying awake in bed / with visions of sugarplums / dancing around my head.” In fact, there’s enough emotional outpouring and crunchy guitar work to channel the ’90s emo scene, back when such comparisons were not considered insulting. And when you’re drawing comparisons to early Get Up Kids, you are most certainly sharing joy, shedding tears, living life.
Musically speaking, not everything works on Are You Falling In Love? In fact, a good deal of its 33 minutes is far from pristine. The group’s songwriting chops take a noticeable hit when things slow down, as more contemplative numbers “Besides You” and “Yeah, Tonight” are clearly works in progress. But with the taste of pop nuggets “Record Store” and “All Those Years” still fresh, there’s plenty of reason to keep listening. With their reverence for the past and all things twee, C86, and noise pop related, Gold-Bears have their limitations, but luckily, they’re already well versed in working their sweet spot.