Ten CDs and two decades into their cultish career, the Figgs parlay power chords, surging choruses and twitchy sarcasm into an exuberant pop rock cocktail.
In "Regional Hits", the second cut on the Figgs' 10th full-length album, guitarist Mike Gent describes a scenario that must have happened once or twice to his band. A song comes on the radio that no one's ever heard. The girls are dancing. The beat's insistent, the guitars twitchily fuck-it-all. It's a "regional hit", the kind of song that gets the kids moving in local clubs but never makes it to radio. Gent and his crew, Pete Donnelly on bass and Pete Hayes on drums, might be forgiven for making the song bitter...after all, how can a cut this catchy lose out to Josh Groban in the world marketplace? But no, the beat is bouncy, the choruses insidiously hooky, the guitars fuck-it-all insouciant, a peanut gallery of mockers when the verse turns to matters like publishing rights. Yes, we're screwed, we've always been screwed, we'll always be screwed, is the song's upbeat message, but what does that have to do with anything?
Started in 1987, the Figgs have had their brushes with greatness, their flirtations with major labels, their ego-gratifying nods from established masters (they have toured as backing band for Graham Parker and Tommy Stinson). Their sound, which still contains traces of late '80s college rock jangle and early '90s new wave beats, is not exactly timeless but not wholly dated either, unless staccato four-four drums and driving guitar eighth-notes have gone out of style, which, last I checked, they hadn't. Yet though some elements of the Figgs' no-holds-barred power pop have remained constant, their latest album shows a sort of maturity, a coming to terms with the fact that good party music is hard to make and easy to dismiss...but that making it has its own rewards.
The first half of the album is good, not stunning, including the sideways grinning "Regional Hits" and the dizzily sweet, backwards-looking title track. A Joe Jackson-ish "Don't Hurt Me Again", also up front, is jangly and urgent, juxtaposing romance and realism in acid lines like, "I would give you a helping hand if you would...come untie me," its intensity not at all compromised by new wave harmonics.
Still, it's in the album's second half that the Figgs really take off, starting with the very Mats-reminiscent "Jumping Again" with its stinging guitar opening and swirling, giddy pop chorus. But if the Figgs use the same chords and tropes as Let It Be-era Replacements, they do so from a less damaged, less desperate perspective. "Jumping Again" is like a Mats song in an alternate world where the sheer joy of the ride overwhelms all the crap that comes with it. Maybe aging gives perspective; the band observes that "This town is no easier than it's ever been" but turns to aspirin, not hard drugs, to ease the pain.
"Jumping Again" is, by a nose, the album's best cut, but it leads into a whole series of winners. There's new wave jittery "Let Me Hold You", surely one of the band's live highlights, all driving eighth notes and circling choruses, very rock without being in the slightest bit heavy. It's followed by the dryly humorous "Hobbie Skirt (In Erie)", its simplicity-movement, back-to-the-land verses in conflict with the caffeinated propulsion of the musical line. "We ended up in Erie / We ended up with tractors and plows / This was a new beginning / no more dealing with traffic and crowds," the band sings in happy harmony, but you can't help but feel, given the coiled twitchy guitar, that they're not as comfortable with the simple life as they let on.
You could spend all day picking the lyrics on this album apart, but it would be a waste of time, because in the end, the words shrink a little away from the music. They're only remarkable for the way they fit into surging melodies and hard-charging rhythms. In the album's closer, "Chasing after words", the words talk about trying to pin down meaning, making sense of things. But it's not until just before the bridge when "Chasing after words / Couldn't pin them down / Chasing after words" turns into "Thought I heard a sound....sound" that the song picks up and flies, jittery and pop-rock into the ether.