Certain musical labels make little sense, thus exposing the inherent limitations of what they describe. An example? Christian rock. There’s Christianity and there’s rock, but there’s no Christian rock. The former seeks to uphold the status quo, while the latter seeks to undermine or outright destroy it. One term negates the other, which probably explains why the genre is so self-consciously awkward. Likewise, pop-punk is an oxymoron. While pop — in the bastardized sense — seeks mainstream acceptance at any cost, punk scoffs at the idea of needing acceptance, much less desiring it. Perhaps, then, this explains pop-punk’s inescapable contradictions, and why it cannot reconcile its message with its reality. Consider the absurdity: products of middle-class America whose standard of living is better than ninety percent of the world expressing rage at the vicious system that keeps them down … um… in beautiful, posh suburbia. Something here just doesn’t work.
Maybe Lola Ray sees the inanity at work here, and maybe this is why they are not content to continue to write pop-punk songs like “Plague (We Need No Victims)” and “One by One”, two tracks from their debut album, 2004’s I Don’t Know You. On Liars, their sophomore album, Lola Ray show an admirable amount of growth, while holding true to their roots. There’s still plenty of alienation, furious riffing, and general dissatisfaction, but there’s more at work here: buoyant melodies ebb throughout the songs, confident lead guitar work bounces and chimes, and frontman John Balicanta’s lyrics achieve more than just complaining about the perceived injustices of life — even if they’re mired in melodrama. While I Don’t Know You could be described as pop-punk with new wave leanings, Liars could be aptly summed up as new wave with punk underpinnings. This, to be sure, is progress.
This can probably be attributed to the bands Lola Ray have been listening to: the Cure, the Beach Boys, the Jam, Guided by Voices, Blonde Redhead. Listen to enough good music and it’s going to come out in your own, and echoes of these bands — however faint — find their way into Liars. “Beautiful Boy”, for example, aims for the epic, swirling melancholy of the Cure; as Balicanta’s voice alternates between a brooding swoon and a high-pitched cry, Brian Spina’s guitar dances and shimmers, harkening back to the dark, romantic guitar style so prevalent in the mid-’80s. “The Way We Argue” also reaches back 20 years ago, combining a very Edge-like riff — repetitive, bright, and hypnotic — with a chorus so unabashedly catchy the band just might have been shooting for the melodic sunshine of the Beach Boys. This isn’t to say Liars displays anything near the brilliance of these bands, but that Lola Ray are dedicated students of rock history, willing to move past their immediate and most comfortable influences.
Thematically, Balicanta continues to write about the struggles of relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the inevitably awkward situations that ensue when these two categories overlap. Though his lyrics are more psychologically detailed this time around, they also tend to be melodramatic, sounding not unlike a person experiencing the thrills and disappointments of love for the first time, when everything is either a crisis or riddle to be solved. The chorus to “We’re Not Having Any Fun”, for instance, displays this kind of post-adolescent hypersensitivity: “Open up your body / Lay me on the floor / Wish that you were watching / Wish you wanted more / Cause no one’s ever touched me / Like the way you do / No one’s ever owned me / Nobody but you”. Yeah, it’s almost embarrassing to read, and those kind of lyrics permeate the entirety of the album. Perhaps Balicanta could listen to more Guided by Voices — if you can’t write a lyric that doesn’t make people cringe, you can always take the Bob Pollard route and just confuse them.
Still, Liars is a solid sophomore outing, and the flaws are fewer. While Balicanta’s lyrics could use some maturing and the songs could vary in tempo, Liars does show that Lola Ray take their craft seriously, and they’re willing to put in the studying and practicing that results in growth. And, if Lola Ray keep spinning the Bob Pollard, Brian Wilson, and Robert Smith, they’re bound to create something enduring down the road. Jumping off pop-punk is a huge step towards this goal.
Lola Ray – Waht It Feels Like