Sunday, January 13, 2019

album review: 'prehysteria' by t-rextasy

So one of my plans for 2019 was getting a bit more freedom to venture into weird places to find new music, and given how slow things are starting this year, it's a good time to build a nice routine in finding it. And nowhere is more overstuffed with offkilter weirdness than Bandcamp and talk about the sort of act that immediately becomes tricky to talk about, mostly because they defy easy categorization.

So yes, let's talk about T-Rextasy, a New York-based punk group that broke out in the mid-2010s with their debut Jurassic Punk - and if by some of those names you might be thinking we're dealing with a joke act... well, I could definitely see it, but I'm not sure I'd entirely agree. It's definitely true that this group has a broad, cartoonish blend of vintage garage rock and art punk, splitting the difference between twee and riot grrl so subtly you might be convinced neither are truly applicable, and all delivered with a bratty yet comedic theatricality that at its best can feel wry and clever but at its worst can feel like Brooklyn hipster community theater that's both grating and entirely too impressed with itself. What I am stressing is that this sound can be very niche, especially given the thick accent of Lyris Faron... but it's certainly catchy and colourful, and I enjoyed their debut album enough to check out their follow-up Prehysteria, so what did we get?

Well... it's generally pretty damn good, but if you weren't won over on T-Rextasy by Jurassic Punk, I'd put money on Prehysteria not coming any further to convincing you, as while the sound has expanded slightly, the overall approach is still very similar. That said, while it is more consistent than Jurassic Punk, I'm not sure there's any one song here that has the gutpunch and vicious writing of 'Gap Yr Boiz', and that means while I definitely enjoyed this album, I wouldn't say I loved it. 

And really, we have to start the conversation with the songwriting, because that's where T-Rextasy has always stood out the most and will be the make-or-break point for a lot of audiences. I've already mentioned Lyris Faron's thicker, not quite traceable accent, but she's also pairing it with a very theatrical style of delivery that's really the only saving grace for how twee some of the lyrics can get. Between the goofiness of 'The Zit Song' that's only a half step away from a Family Guy sketch, the overstuffed double entendre of 'Coffee?', and the outright retreat into adolescence of 'Baby', to say nothing of the weird, not particularly focused statements on 'Tattoo!', this is where the writing falls into the category of being more campy and garish than punchy or all that clever, and yet never quite over the top enough to really connect - and that's about half the album! Thankfully the other half splits into two groups: the songs that are pure camp like 'Theme From Prehysteria' and can revel in its self-mythologizing; and the smarter songs that deal more in messy queer relationships and dissatisfaction. And if I'm delving into themes, this is where the album can reveal a larger sense of understandable confusion: between societal constraints and their own quirks they're not getting what they want, but when you combine it when the open question how they might not know what they want and wind up making do along the way, there's a sense of deeply rooted millennial frustration that can definitely resonate. And I like the mingled, unclear morass of affection between women on 'Girl, Friend', followed up with a lot more anger underscored with insecurity on 'Maddy's Got A Boyfriend'. And I like how those songs are juxtaposed with a real underlying sense of independence and emotional complexity, from satiating one's desires in their craft and art on 'Rip Van Vintage' to the hipster guy who might well be an entitled jackass but she might fall for him anyway on 'Pretty Boy', hence why she tries to avoid him.

And look, all of the writing has the feel of a university drama production - a little overwritten and earnest, the poetry not as tight as it should be... and that kind of applies to the music too. And it's a little tough to nail down why I don't quite love this style of punk and indie rock, because while the polish did shave away some distortion and bite, the melodies are still prominent, the grooves are still chunky, and T-Rextasy still pulls plenty from girl groups, a bit of proto-punk and art punk, and even hints of ska as the horns slip onto 'I Don't Do Lunch' and 'Coffee?' to keep things interesting - although if we're being honest, the syncopation on songs like 'Rip Van Vintage' highlight that ska side in the composition too. Now I'll freely admit when the band gets closer to raw punk on songs like 'Girl, Friend', 'Theme From Prehysteria' and especially 'Maddie's Got A Boyfriend' we get some of the best moments, but more of that might be linked to some greater tightness and intensity that cuts like 'Pretty Boy', good as they might be, just don't have to the same extent. And I'll say it: if the songs are going to sound as clean as they do, you find yourself wishing the pop side had a little more refinement, because otherwise it can feel a little sloppy. And while I wouldn't really say the vocals are the whole problem, I will say they could afford to be more layered or multi-tracked, if only to lend them more body and give some sticky hooks more punch - these women have a lot of personality, and I wish they played off each other a bit more. Finally, I really wish this album was better sequenced - the fact that 'Theme From Prehysteria' didn't open the album and yet 'Tattoo!' ended it are two mystifying and not particularly good decisions to set tone or momentum, or end on a strong foot. 

So as a whole... look, this is a very niche project and I'll admit if you're not willing to get on-board I understand. It's a shade too goofy and polished to fit among the best riot grrl, but also a little too slapdash for most indie pop. And on top of that, if you don't have a taste for a very queer, very colourful, very New York-art-collective-centric brand of music, this will be too much and probably won't stick. But for me... I dunno, the theatricality has always worked, the writing can be pretty insightful between the lines, and there's a ton of character to this music that can't really be denied, especially with the acknowledgement that while they're not in the same leagues as the older women in indie rock like Neko Case or Sleater-Kinney or the newly revived Ex Hex, they could well get there. So for me... very light 7/10, check it out if you want something loose and fun, and I'll definitely be curious to see what comes next - good stuff.

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