Devotees of '90s indie rock switch things up enough to create an album distinct from their influences.
At the risk of TMI, Cymbals Eat Guitars should hit my sweet spot. If every review of your debut album mentions late ‘90s-era Modest Mouse and Built to Spill as points of reference, I'm going to want to take you out to dinner. And Cymbals Eat Guitars, another band full of dudes from New York and New Jersey, would have quite an appetite. That debut record, Why There Are Mountains (2009), sounded positively ravenous, each king-sized track lining up a buffet of ideas for your digestion. So, why didn't I dig it? I mean, yeah, I dug it, but I should've wanted to keep on going, all the way to China, Looney Tunes-style.
Ultimately, Mountains was probably too dense, too enamored of packing layers upon layers into its running time. Sort of like they had hush puppies on the buffet, and I just got a plate full of hush puppies. (What am I going to do, not get a hush puppies plate?) It seems perfect at first glance, pure pleasure, but see how you feel after half an hour.
Now, with Lenses Alien, the band's much-anticipated sophomore attempt, I'm going back for seconds. And -- despite what the group's interviews and press junkets might tell you -- Cymbals Eat Guitars have toned things down a bit. It works. There's only one track here that crests above five minutes, opener "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)". The song marks the closest frontman Joseph D'Agostino comes to Isaac Brock or Doug Martsch on the album, and it's something of a false start. Through bursts of feedback squall and falsetto peels, D'Agostino etches out a story about either an assassination attempt or an alien abduction or both; his surrealistic lyrics don't have the, well, lyricism of Brock's or Martsch's, though "You can't bore a hole to the cavity where the soul lives" comes close as a runner-up. Without interesting images or a catchy melody to hang onto, the song gets lost in the murk of its instrumentation.
Fortunately, the record picks up after that -- in fact, it switches paths almost entirely. The rest of Lenses is comprised almost entirely of three-to-four-minute guitar-pop songs, with enough guitar noodling and washes of noise to keep the edge on. "Shore Points" pairs mournful lyrics about a friend's death with chiming guitars and "oh-oo-oh" backing vocals. When D'Agostino lets go of the ambition to create The Big Picture and instead focuses his attention on the small details, he hits paydirt: lines like "Sodium vapor lamps reflect in spin-out strips of black ice" and "Cattails sway in the concrete" describe his isolation succinctly and vividly, without going for broke in the liner notes.
Still, in one sense, Cymbals Eat Guitars keep their former sprawl intact: there's hardly a chorus to be found here. Songs unfold as the tempo dictates, like "Keep Me Waiting" and its constant on-rush of wah-pedal and quick chord changes. The effect can be dulling, volume or energy getting confused for dynamism. On the other hand, "Plainclothes" plays the soft-loud, start-stop card to great effect, creating the album's finest song, D'Agostino trippily mixing lyrics about a murderer on the run with his own sad-sack summer memories: "Friends fuck each other in the guest room / I feel the ghost of all the parties still happening." A surprise disco-haze freak-out ends the track in a burst of force.
"Definite Darkness" and "Another Tunguska" sound remarkably similar to one another, but they also sound pretty good, so. Really, you could say the same for most of Lenses Alien, the tracks blending together into a patchwork of noisy pop. At the very least, Cymbals Eat Guitars sound free from the influence-peddling of their debut, well on their way to creating their own niche. If they get there, it will be something to see.