The first song on Sex Stains is so effective that the rest of the album has a hard time matching its combination of catchy and harrowing.
Sex Stains’ self-titled debut album opens with “Countdown To…”, a bracing first-person collage of ugly childhood memories from co-lead vocalist Allison Wolfe. Over a catchy, gyrating guitar lead from Sharif Dumani, Wolfe recounts several unfortunate situations. There was the time when she was five and she and her sister took turns pointing a loaded gun at each other, and the time her host family went out to dinner, left her alone, and then laughed at her failed attempt to make mac and cheese for herself when they returned. “Countdown To…” is a hell of an opening salvo, catchy and harrowing in equal measure. The rest of the album attempts to do more of the same, but nothing quite matches the intensity of the record’s opening song.
This is always a concern when a band begins a record with a barnburner, and it affects Sex Stains more than most. Wolfe and her co-vocalist Mecca Vazie Andrews have plenty to say and plenty to complain about on this album, but that confessional tone is never really replicated. Meanwhile, Dumani mostly settles into a more traditional punk guitar groove on most of the songs, hitting the chords very competently but never pulling out a riff or lead as ear-grabbing as the one on “Countdown To…”
The interplay between Wolfe and Andrews at least keeps the album interesting. Their voices are very different, with Wolfe in the high, reedy range and Andrews much lower. Both spend roughly equal time speaking and singing in addition to splitting their lead, duet, and backing vocal duties essentially in half. The catchy “Land of La LA” finds Wolfe lyrically rambling her way through a singsongy love-hate ode to Los Angeles, and when Andrews comes in for what’s essentially the bridge, it provides a nice contrast. “Oh No (Say What?)” finds Andrews narrating a story about how angry it made her that a pair of people in an elevator let the door close instead of holding it for her. Her reaction serves as the chorus to the song, “You are hateful / You ingrateful!” It’s not a great rhyme, but her passion sells the song, even though it seems like a bit of an extreme reaction. Most entertaining is the outro to the song, when Andrews tries to come up with explanations for why they let the door close on her and Wolfe categorically rejects her ideas.
On the other hand, the mixing and production defeat the song “Period. Period.”, where the two vocalists trade words back and forth for much of the track. This is the sort of thing that is easier to pull off when trading entire lines, but for individual words the vocals have to be way out front to make it comprehensible. And while the production leans towards the vocals slightly over the instruments, the difference in the singers’ ranges makes Wolfe’s upper register voice cut through the mix much better than Andrews. The result is that Andrews sounds muted and difficult to understand while Wolfe comes through clearly and it makes the lyrics a muddled mess.
While sticking to short, punk-influenced songs (only one track out of 12 passes the 2:15 mark), Sex Stains get creative here and there. “Confrontational” opens with a sample from one of Wolfe’s old interviews (she’s a punk and riot grrl veteran who has been in bands since the early ‘90s) that stops on the word “Confrontational”, but uses that as a launching pad for a mid-tempo surf-rock instrumental. This is the other point on the record where Dumani’s guitar stands out, as he handles both the style and melody of the song with aplomb. “Who Song Love Song” and “Cutie Pie” are among the brighter, more playful songs on the album, and the band accentuates that playful quality by adding a chirpy, circus organ to both tracks. This has the effect of enhancing the ska-style sounds inherent in the band’s basic sound.
While the album as a whole is entertaining and an easy listen, it’s hard to get over how good that opening track is compared to the rest of the record. The winning formula for Sex Stains combines the vocalists’ passion with Dumani coming up with creative guitar parts. While Wolfe and Andrews have plenty of passion throughout the album, their passion almost seems petty compared to the high stakes childhood memories of “Countdown To…” This leaves Sex Stains stuck between jokey and serious, with the jokey side winning out. But feeling like they could be so much better if they were more serious.