Austin, Texas’ the Young have been together since 2007, and have been shapeshifting since, trying to find their sound, figure out their place. They started as a punky rock band, but rather than settle in with the rest of the garage-rockers in Austin, they pushed forward, changing lineups and textures and sound so that the band that put a single out on Matador’s 2010 Austin-focused compilation, Casual Victim Pile, sounded little like the band that released its first full-length, Voyagers of Legend, on Mexican Summer a year later. That album, nerdy sci-fi title aside, was a major step forward into jittery, echoing, gauze-pop, a mix of classic rock and hazy home-recordings that saw them branching out into their own sound. They were finding themselves, and making some damn fine music doing it.
Now the band has returned to Matador for its second record, Dub Egg, and if the title is once again mercurial — it came from a dream one band member had once — the music continues to improve, to become refined. Voyagers of Legend succeeded on pure, shaking energy, even if its layers got crowded and clustered up and confused in some places. Dub Egg, recorded in a week in a cabin in the woods — with a few overdubs afterward — improves on that record’s discoveries in every way. This isn’t the game changer for the band its predecessor was, but it’s a much more confident and assured record, one that finds the players not breaking new ground, but making the most of the new thing they’ve discovered. Where so many artists are happy to do a new thing with mediocrity and move on, the ever-shifting Young seem to have found a space to clear out and make their own on Dub Egg.
The most impressive thing about the Young is how they sound so, well, old. That is not to say they’re throwbacks, but rather that they just sound naturally aged. The guitar tones have an organic wear to them, the drums shuffle like they grew up watching both Levon Helm slide and John Bonham crash all over the kit. The lead guitar on “Livin’ Free” feels modern enough, wobbling with effects, but the rhythm work is ringing, clear distortion, something pulled straight from the Crazy Horse playbook. A similar interplay of gliding lead guitar over crunchy chords drives the expansive thump of “Dance with the Ramblers”, a song that starts with lean punk energy and singer Hans Zimmerman sounding like the snotty younger brother of Iggy Pop, before it opens up into guitar-hero theatrics in its second half.
Dub Egg is an album that mixes traditions well. Besides the highlights above, there’s also the Parsons-esque sway of “Only Way Out”, the wind chimes that clang over the psychedelic roll of “NUMB”, and the bluesy stomp of closer “Talking to Rose”. There’s an impressive breadth of sounds to this record, and though it’s hardly shined up to shimmer, the production here is just a bit cleaner, a bit more organized than the last record, so that you can dig into the different parts of the songs and see how well they can cohere.
Of course, the problem with finding a sonic home is that you can get too comfortable, and that does happen in the middle of Dub Egg. Some of this is sequencing — the narcotic trudge of “NUMB” works on its own, but following the slack space of “The Mirage” it feels like it drags on a bit. Some of it, though, is that they move out into space and away from the energy that made their sound so vitally theirs. “Poisoned Hell” feels like an undercooked version of the bounce of “Dance with the Ramblers”, the guitars just a bit too slack to hold the song up, while “Plunging Rollers” falls apart on a too-slow chorus that aims for towering and nearly gets there — the guitar solo is a nice touch halfway through — but it idles rather than picking up speed, so it can’t quite make it up the hill of sound it has set up.
None of this makes Dub Egg a difficult listen. It’s a gliding, sometimes thrilling set perfect for summer cookouts and late-night drinking. What these hiccups do is keep a good album from being the great one it should be. There’s still plenty of growing room for the Young, so no doubt this isn’t the last — or the best — you’ve heard of them. And heck, if this is the sound of you just hitting your stride, you’re doing something right.