Thursday, July 24, 2014

album review: 'never hungover again' by joyce manor

So here's the problem with being a video reviewer that covers punk records in any capacity: if you're not careful, you might end up taking longer than the album itself. So much of punk - especially hardcore punk - worked best by distilling their formula down to a razor sharp, precisely timed slice of music, which operated as something of a double-edged sword. If you do it right, you can create something with blisteringly sharp, potent impact, but if you don't hit the right spot at precisely the right time, your album could come across as ephemeral.

Enter Joyce Manor, a California-based punk act that crashed onto the indie scene with their self-titled record in 2011 and followed it with Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired in 2012, both of which are records that are pretty damn solid across the board for the ten to fifteen minutes you get them. Initially, I was pretty impressed by the songwriting - it bites hard from the broadly sketched metaphors of teenage angst, but then again, so did Green Day - but what hooked me was the more experimental side on that second album, experimenting with dirty lo-fi records more reminiscent of Beck balanced against the decidedly poppier songs, all brought together by Barry Johnson's honestly cynical, too-smart-for-the-room delivery. The contrast immediately drew comparisons to the Smiths, because music critics make hyperbolic comparisons way too quickly when they spot obvious talent - and they weren't the only ones, as Joyce Manor signed to Epitaph Records for their new record Never Hungover Again, their longest album at ten songs and just under twenty minutes! So I checked it out - what did I get?

Honestly, not as much as I was hoping. I'm not saying Never Hungover Again by Joyce Manor is bad - there's a lot to like about this album, especially if you like pop punk that's more on the heavier side - but I'd hesitate to call it as interesting as their last release and there are fewer moments that really stand out, lyrically and instrumentally. 

So how did this happen? Well, let's consider Joyce Manor instrumentally, where there is more of a shift towards a poppier sound in terms of slowing down the riffs a bit and gunning for those hooks a little more effectively, but the production and instrumentation really isn't that far removed from their wheelhouse - fast-paced, slightly gritty melodic riffs, strong bass lines, solid drum progressions, with only a few richer keyboard sections to show the slightest hint of pop modernization. Honestly, the bass work by Matt Ebert is probably the strongest element of this record in keeping the punk tone when the band does opt to experiment a little more, like on the catchy as hell guitar line on 'Schley', the syncopated guitar work on 'In The Army Now', or the bass on its own on 'Falling In Love Again' or 'Heart Tattoo'.

Now I'm not going to lie and say the lack of the lo-fi songs or broader experimentation did irk me a bit, but I get Joyce Manor's choice to go for a more streamlined pop punk approach while keeping with their characteristic brevity. Hell, Barry Johnson is a natural fit for it, with a voice that's accessibly raw and yet can handle the teenage angst that underscores a lot of this record. I'm not sure he's always well positioned in the mix - placement a little closer to the front could have given Joyce Manor a bit more of that crossover appeal of which they're clearly looking - but he's fine in front of the mic.

So what about the lyrics and themes, where Joyce Manor tends to nail the line between punk angst and more oblique indie rock? Well, they're pretty good and reasonably well-realized if you have a taste for decidedly teenage sensibilities when it comes to the drama on display, most of it framed as Johnson's hapless loser getting taking of when he's looking for sex or a relationship. And there are a few pretty solid variations to the theme: 'Christmas Card' focuses on the helpless anger and self-doubt he feels when getting a card from an ex; 'Falling In Love Again' shows him trying to navigate awkward territory with the ex and yet finds his feelings returning; 'End Of The Summer' is the song about summer flings sizzling out, 'The Jerk' takes the perspective of the complicated case where the guy won the girl's affection by playing the asshole, and now they have no idea how to deal with each other; and 'Heated Swimming Pool' sees our protagonist try to assert control - ultimately in futility because he lets the girl slip back into his life anyway. Now there's some solid nuance here and the songs are well-framed to reflect very human situations, with the upbeat tone only underscoring the melancholy of the lyrics - probably the foundation of those Smiths comparisons - but at the same time the lyrics do feel a little benign at points and could have striven to be more ambitious, the worst case being the bad tattoo pathetic love of 'Tattoo Heart'. And what's both good and a little exasperating is that there are two songs that do deliver: the awkward attempt at tenderness in 'Schley'; and the loneliness of 'In The Army Now', which loosely sketched a story of being left behind. In fact, if we're going to extract a theme for this collection of short stories, it falls into 'well, the relationship might suck, and be painful, and might lead to heartbreak, but it's better than being alone or abandoned'. And yeah, it's a juvenile sentiment, but this album fits that label, and I can't deny that for its blisteringly short runtime, it's a sentiment that works.

So in the end... you know, I liked this. I'm not sure it's a pop-punk record that'll really stick with me or will last beyond a few summer listens, but it does have some punch and there's some material here that has some depth. I won't say it's better than Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, but Never Hungover Again a close second, and I feel comfortable giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation. Maybe it just wore me down, but the album is perfectly represented by the futility of its title: as much as we might pledge to never be hungover again, eventually life sucks us back in again.

No comments:

Post a Comment