Wild Moccasins spend half of their debut slavishly recreating early '80s pop, but don't really come to life until they stop doing that later in the album.
Wild Moccasins have been kicking around here in Houston, Texas, for several years, developing their chops and honing a smooth indie-pop sound. They have a reputation as a hard-working band that is just maybe good enough to be the one that breaks out nationally and puts Houston’s rock music scene on the map. I’m not sure why that matters to the Houston music press and music fans, other than the natural inferiority complex that seems to come with being a native Houstonian. The city always seems to be comparing itself to the still slightly-larger Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex and the city’s musicians continually fight against the perception (real or imagined) that all the worthwhile guitar-based music in the state comes from Austin. So 88 92, the band’s debut full-length after a pair of well-received EPs, comes with some pretty heavy local expectations.
It’s a burden the band probably doesn’t need or deserve, because despite those years honing their chops, 88 92 feels like a work in progress from a group that’s still figuring out what they want to be. The album’s first half is a slick, super-clean production that combines elements of new wave, disco, funk and yacht rock for a quintet of tracks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on pop radio in the early ‘80s. Singer Zahira Gutierrez’s seductive coo of a voice fits right in with these songs, but the rest of the band and producer Kevin Ryan deserve credit for making this sound as slick as it does. Mid-tempo opener “Open Sesames” features guitar tones so shimmery you aren’t sure whether they’re guitars or keyboards, and the song sounds like it’s right out of the Thompson Twins playbook. The sultry “Sponge Won’t Soak” features a funky bassline from Nicholas Cody that fits right in with the stuttering guitars. “Eye Makeup” is so bright and cheery (and cheesy) that it wouldn’t sound out of place on a mix next to the theme song from The Love Boat.
Sonically, this is a spot-on recreation of that period of music. Even the uptempo Spanish-language “Real” feels like one of Blondie’s softer moments, which is a bit jarring at first but easy enough to roll with after a few listens. The problem is that the songwriting itself isn’t particularly good on the front half of the album. Despite the strong singing of Gutierrez and the obvious skill of the band, there are virtually no catchy melodies or guitar riffs to be found here. There’s nothing that’s outright bad, either, but none of it sticks in the head once the song is over. The closest Wild Moccasins get is that bassline on “Sponge Won’t Soak”, which isn’t enough to carry the whole track.
The situation starts to improve when the sonics take an abrupt left turn on the album’s title track. “88 92” sounds like it was dipped in a haze of guitar and keyboard fuzz as guitarist Cody Swann takes over the lead vocals. But “88 92” isn’t a particularly memorable song, either, aside from how different it sounds compared to the early part of the album. It isn’t until the single “Emergency Broadcast” that Wild Moccasins finally find a worthwhile hook. It’s no coincidence that this is also the first song on the album where it sounds like the band is loosening up and having some fun. Gutierrez sings about hearing a high-pitched sound that she can’t identify, concluding with a direct question, “Is it your feedback / Mr. Swann?” to which Swann replies “No, it’s the smoke alarm / Listen, come on.” Then the two harmonize on “Listen, come on” for a bit and the song becomes a full-blown duet. Swann isn’t a great singer, but in this instance he’s a nice foil for Gutierrez. It helps that the funk bassline and disco-style drums are counterbalanced in the song by some nicely scuzzed-up guitar tones.
The band heads back to the early ‘80s for a couple more songs before the album ends, but both “Full-Time Fetish” and “Painless Mouth” are slightly darker tracks than the first half of the record. Still, the album’s two other big successes come at the end and it’s no coincidence that neither tries to replicate that ‘80s sound. “Gag Reflections” is a great album closer, a cheery pop song with great Gutierrez vocals undercut by a nicely snarling, but still melodic guitar line. In the compact disc era, there’s a good chance that outlier and actual final track “When I Said I Saw it Coming” would be an unlisted secret song. But since we’re past that, this India-by-way-of-The Beatles psychedelic drone is a lot of fun as a weirdo experiment for the band. Swann shines on the vocals here, fitting in much better as a singer on a song that has nothing to do with early ‘80s influences.
As great as the new wave and yacht rock-indebted sections of 88 92 sound, Wild Moccasins feel much more alive when they’re doing songs that are looser and not so slavishly indebted to a single era of pop music. That makes the album a hit-or-miss proposition at best, with plenty of the dreaded theoretical “potential” there for better future efforts, but middling at best results for the here and now. Sorry, Houston music community. You may have to wait a couple more years for Wild Moccasins to truly blossom and show all those people in Austin what’s what.