Something interesting has risen out of the glut of lo-fi bands that has covered the independent music landscape over the past couple of years. Most of those bands (read: the best of them) ditched the tape hiss and basement scuzz for sharper production. Bands like Male Bonding — and label mates Dum Dum Girls — sound too good to stay lo-fi, and smartly broke out of that ghetto into bigger sonic territory. For Male Bonding, this has been a more gradual process. The band’s early singles were assaults of blaring fuzz, and its Sub Pop debut Nothing Hurts dialed that down to a volatile but melodic buzzsaw of guitars and crashing drums.
Endless Now shines up their sound even further. This stuff is downright polished, and they don’t lose an ounce of energy in the bargain. Nothing Hurts, one of the finest records to come out of that lo-fi push, pit the breakneck speed of the band’s riffage against gauzy, buried vocals. The results were fascinating and unpredictable. Songs turned on a dime; they sped along seemingly out of control only to set themselves to charge you head-on. Textures, though all scuzzy, varied from subterranean to late-afternoon hazy. In short, it was a surprising and varied record.
Somehow, in polishing up their sound, the contrasts in their music have become more pronounced. The band is as tight as ever, powering through blistering power-pop gems like “Tame the Sun” and “Seems to Notice” with wild-eyed zeal. The songs seem driven by power chords and hard drumming, but between the two there are tangled bass lines and off-kilter guitar riffs. The cleaner production may make the individual layers cleaner, but the way they combine is still murky yet smoldering, confused but often thrilling.
The best part of Endless Now, though, is how this shredding rock mixes with John Arthur Webb’s vocals. They seemed gauzy and often indistinct on the last record, a curiously blurred sound over the burrs and sharp edges of the music. Here that division gets amplified because Webb’s singing is higher in the mix and awfully sweet. It’s unassuming and hushed, refusing to fight to be heard over the guitar attack. Instead, he makes space by stretching out his lines, by filling up any holes in the songs with a bittersweet keen. His sentiments are often sweet and lovelorn too, belying all that confrontational noise. “I want you here with me,” he repeats on “Carrying” — backed with equally great singing by bass player Kevin Hendrick — and if his feeling is plainspoken, it loses no power for it since his delivery seems so sincere.
The big difference between Nothing Hurts and Endless Now goes beyond fidelity, though. As polished, even professional, as they sound, it’s how these records move as wholes that differentiate them. Their last record was all fits and starts, each song as restless and near chaos as the last. In comparison, Endless Now is relatively direct. These songs charge ahead at about the same speed — which is to say quickly — and focus on deeper melodies rather than off-the-wall shifts to keep your attention. In fact, the biggest surprise comes in the six-plus-minute “Bones”. It’s a towering wall of distortion, power chords chugging all the way through, but it doesn’t change dramatically. Instead, it’s the insistence of its sound, the way it holds its shape for so long, that ends up surprising you. You’re waiting for a change that never comes, and the tension that it achieves is wonderful and a great shift from the two-plus minute speed trials of the other songs. There is a quick acoustic shift on “The Saddle” and a spacey breakdown in “Channeling Your Fears”, but for the most part these songs set a course and ride it out as quickly and tightly as they can.
That approach may make for a set that doesn’t catch you off guard in the charming ways Nothing Hurts did, but you’re still getting a super-catchy and volatile set of noisy rock songs on Endless Now. Male Bonding proves it doesn’t need to hide behind the gauze, because clearer fidelity actually highlights their strengths, putting their disparate parts in starker contrast to each other. To hear all that parts clearly is to hear how well they seem to both clash and fit together at the same time. These may be quick bursts of rock music, but in the end they’ve never as simple as they seem. Sometimes better fidelity doesn’t add clarity; it just makes the murk more interesting.