Re-recorded from old snippets, this new Ashrae Fax set is more self-assured than the band's debut, Static Crash!, though you might sometimes miss the nervous energy of that first album.
Last year, Mexican Summer reintroduced audiences to Ashrae Fax through a reissue of their 2003 record, Static Crash!. Now, the North Carolina band is back with Never Really Been Into It. The album comes out of a stack of early recordings from the band frontwoman Renee Mendoza found. She spent five months in 2013 re-recording the songs and, in Never Really Been Into It, Mendoza imagines an alternate history for Ashrae Fax, bringing a second album to light that actually feels by turns like both debut and follow-up to Static Crash!.
Mendoza and bandmate Alex Chesney were musicians cutting their teeth on the recordings that became their first record, but since Mendoza has grown and stretched out as a musician, fronting rock band Filthybird as well as playing in ambient group Ama Divers. Both ambient and rock music inform the electro-pop center of Ashrae Fax's sound, and that sound always shifted enough that there's no real formula for Mendoza to follow on this new record. But early songs expand on the Static Crash! musical palate. "Dreamers Tied to Chairs" wafts in on keyboards, but it's the rippling guitars that give it shape as Mendoza's ever-ranging voice wanders over the track. "CHKN" whips the same moody elements up into something more propulsive. The guitars are front and center here, but hooks tangle into one another so that the song is both catchy and complex, sweet yet disorienting. "The Big Lie" rounds out the start of the record by pitting the warm strum of acoustic guitars against the most angular keyboards on the record. The odd combination of sounds creates a valley from which Mendoza's voice rises out of. In these early songs, you can see both how the past 11 years have changed the players as musicians, but you also see clear lines back to the fitful experiments of Static Crash!.
Other sections of the record stretch past this rock-based start. "Hurricanes In a Jar" is all shuffling sheen, a sort of distorted mirror-image of late-'80s and earl-'90s R&B-influenced pop music. "Intexus" is a mood piece where the atmospherics take center stage, keyboards scraping and skittering across the song, while guitars and backing vocals drift in the background. Closer "In Motion" meshes elements from all parts of the album into a heady mix, and finally captures lines of both yearning and bliss that weave through the record. The best parts of Never Really Been Into It champion Mendoza's impressive vocals, as she's the kind of songwriter that can capture a moment but also the kind of singer than can wring several emotions out of that moment.
This record has a confidence that the first Ashrae Fax didn't have, and that give it a uniform quality. But there are moments where you might miss the nervous energy of the previous record. "Fits and Starts" feels a bit lighter and more by-the-book than other tracks here, as it doesn't shuffle up guitar and keyboard so much as it lets them ride parallel for a bit too long. Meanwhile, "Decaax" pushes a little too far into the industrial electronic feel other songs approach with more subtlety. In these moments, there seems to be a concerted effort to define the Ashrae Fax sound. But other recordings from the group, where no one was watching and yet everything felt at stake, were brilliant for their wide sense of that definition, for never wanting to sit still. Never Really Been Into It is a solid pop record, one with wide-enough borders in which to play. But the best, most ambitious sounds here invite the songs to push even further outside their comfort zone.