Adolescence is a difficult time. Just as young people strike out on their own for the first time they find themselves under all sorts of pressure from their peers as well as those who have gone before. Smart but naïve, purposeful but directionless, these youths and their trials and tribulations are what have brought us angst-ridden pop from groups like Blink 182, Sum 41, and sweet faced punks turned label mavens Good Charlotte. Apparently tired of their traditional half-and-half blend of power pop mixed with distilled punk, the lads of Good Charlotte went seeking new talent, and they found what they were looking for in a band called Lola Ray. Just a few newly minted musicians fresh out of the O.C. (and New York), they impressed the label leaders with a fresher mix of '80s new wave and '90s garage. While their sound and songwriting abilities have upped the label's IQ, their debut album reveals that some pressure to conform to the mindless gum-smacking bravado of their label-mates persists. On I Don't Know You, the members of Lola Ray introduce their audience to their gift for sweetly simple melodies, honest lyrics, and intricate orchestrations that take angst to a new level of sophistication. Despite their susceptibility to outside influences that occasional send them off down the wrong path, their debut effort is well worth a serious listen.
Among the fans of pop-punk are inevitably individuals derisively referred to as "poseurs", and similarly Lola Ray seem to be adopting a pop-punk stance that just doesn't seem to fit their true talents. The album opens with a gratuitous twenty-second amp static intro, followed by the requisite overloaded fuzz guitar barrage. The song goes on to discuss holding hands and dying young, an obvious ploy to attract the melodramatic imaginations of teen WB viewers. Yet, the monotony is cleverly broken by a brief electronica interlude, and by the second track they've already begun to cast off their emo-shackles. The brilliant song "What It Feels Like" opens with a guitar riff in triplets of all things, a vaguely funky track whose full throttle guitars and raw vocals transform an ordinary garage rocker into a thrilling aural experience. The group moves seamlessly from triple to double time, an awesome display of talent and musical intelligence that belies their youthful age and uncomplicated lyrics. Sadly, they still aren't finished exorcising their teeny pop demons, as on "Charlit Movie Star" (an unsubtle reference to sugar-daddies Good Charlotte?), a ballad as cheesy and devoid of intelligence as was ever sung by the likes of Dashboard Confessional. The song's weepy acoustic guitar strumming and whiny lyrics sound completely out of step with the rest of the group's work, and all anyone can do is be grateful that they follow it up with one of the album's more perfect tracks, a song called "Preach On", which does exactly what the previous track was trying to do, only this track succeeds as the muted and fragile vocals weave in and out of sorrowful waves of electronic noise and mournful guitars to create a sort of post-modern symphonic homage to teen angst.
The album's best tracks are those that move as far as possible from the pop-punk sound, adopting new-wave's electronic hooks and the jaded swagger of '90s indie a la the Pixies or the Flaming Lips. Perhaps the best song on the album isn't technically "on" the album at all, but rather is hidden at the end of the last track, maybe so the production team of DC Flag couldn't find it and, like, add a drum solo or more lyrics about high school girls and spikey hair/piercings. The dreamy psychedelic orchestration, electronic beats, stream of consciousness lyrics and that uniquely indie brand of apathetic vocal delivery laced with acerbic irony sounds remarkably like the aforementioned forebearers, or better yet, Sgt. Peppers meets the Postal Service. Ultimately, Lola Ray's raw, manic-depressive vocals and heavy rock and roll minimalism recalls recent trends in garage rock revival, in particular groups like the Strokes and Hot Hot Heat. Songs like "She's A Tiger" are too melodically gorgeous to be branded punk at all, yet the stripped down rhythm section, restrained guitar solos, and under-produced timbres exude an all-too close to home, call it garage-distance, emotional proximity.
Lola Ray are armed with a keen and rather dangerous pop sensibility since they seem to be able to use it for good or evil, and with abandon. If they hit their stride and follow their intuition, they could be the greatest thing to hit rock music in a while, but if they let themselves be pulled into the crowd, they'll probably still get big, but let's hope they have the heart to distribute ear plugs. Their unique talent is for writing intelligent pop songs that capitalize on the many diverse influences that the pop market has to offer these days, and synthesizing them with a solid but simple melody as their foundation. The result is honest rock with heart and soul that is always challenging and often remarkably beautiful. However, cracking under peer and market pressures could very well be their Achilles heel. Judging by their freshman oeuvre, however, it looks like they just might find their way.