Kids on a Crime Spree execute the mid-fi '60s-pop sound well, but in the end that success may be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. It ends up rendering them almost anonymous.
The players in Kids on a Crime Spree aren't as young as their name might suggest, nor do their sweet pop tunes sound all that dangerous. Then again, that's part of the appeal to Mario Hernandez's new musical project. As an alter ego of sorts for him -- a departure from the lush, polished pop songs he wrote for his other band From Bubblegum to Sky -- he seems to be enjoying it, crafting a band name that makes him seem like some sneering teens from Brooklyn and mining the sort of '60s pop-rock that is all the rage with that same group of kids.
As a departure for Hernandez, who claims his obsession with this sound started when a friend played him the Back to Mono boxset a decade ago, We Love You So Bad is fairly successful. It's a short set, with just eight songs running a little over 20 minutes, but the poppy hooks come in gauzy droves. The songs mesh the sundrenched vibes of surf rock with a smudgy mid-fi feel all throughout, and if that combination doesn't seem exactly new, it is still well-executed.
Songs like "It's In My Blood" and "To Mess With Dynamite" drive forward on the strength of Becky Barron's lean drums, while "Sweet Tooth" snaps off joyful riffs and hand claps without the hint of a smirk. In other places, Hernandez tries a murkier take on his usual pop tendencies, with the more hazy sounds of "Dead Ripe" or "Impasto". This back and forth between tight pop-rock and melting dream-pop gives the short disc a surprising amount of variety, and throughout the high-register of Hernandez's voice works perfectly, so that he brings to mind modern pop artists like Dean Wareham while his band is channeling the Ventures. In the same way the guitars here also manage to have one foot in the distant past and one foot in the, well, near past, merging that surf-rock snap with a hollow ringing that suggests Johnny Marr's jangle more than anything else.
There's a lot to like, and chances are you won't be turned off by anything Hernandez and company are doing. These are sweet tunes, with a fog of mystery to them, and they are handled with confidence and an honesty that cuts through the irony their band name hints at. However, it might also be that Hernandez and company are too good at sounding like this kind of band, or at musical archetypes in general. If someone didn't tip you off ahead of time, you might have a hard time discerning this from Black Lips or even lesser-known acts like Beach Fossils. They also seem to be aware of the type of songs they should sing as a band named Kids on a Crime Spree. Hernandez sings to "baby" often and it begins to wear thin at some point, and when -- on "Trumpets of Death" -- he repeats "urban decay" over and over again, and gripes about people talking on their phones, the cliché seems too complete to work as tribute to a genre. Kids on a Crime Spree approach this sound genuinely, and they bring a sound to life that Hernandez has been toiling with for years -- apparently these eight songs came from a stack of hundreds of compositions -- but in the end that success may be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. It ends up rendering them almost anonymous.