Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (2010)

(Sub Pop)


If you love music, you live for unexpected discoveries. 2010 has been full of them for me. Here is the latest, a band whose first release has been met with a bottomless pool of Nirvana comparisons. Much to my surprise, then, every time I put it on, I can't stop dancing; no fucking way is it not one of the most glorious albums of the year, and yet how can I really explain why when it's simply in a hallowed tradition, its unique contributions to its genre -- if they exist -- virtually impossible to pin down? This, in other words, is Punk Rock.

What is it about young men blasting out sweet melodies as loud and fast and hard as they can that manages to achieve such consistent eternal grace? No band seems able to pull off more than half an hour of it before it starts to sound stale, but at their first blush, every one of them (or at least a staggering number of them) achieve this odd, life-affirming impeccability on their initial full-force annihiliation of rock & roll. After thirty-five years, how does punk always manage to sound new? How did punk manage to sound new twenty years after rock & roll? Etc.

Male Bonding is a British punk band whose album is a twenty-nine minute thunderbolt of lovably catchy songs couched in feverish energy and unmitigated joy. Only Surfer Blood and Love Is All have recorded straight-ahead rock albums with as much vitality this year. We'll continue to need a neverending supply of young people to fill these holes as they wear themselves out, and Male Bonding is merely the latest in a long line that may or may not be able to capture anything of such immediacy and emotion again. But right now, the world is theirs, and rock & roll is nothing if not a movement of moments. Enjoy this one while it's here, before it becomes as nostalgic as a glass of wine and Is This It.

The impulse to dance and brood flies in with the opening "Year's Not Long," all big riffage and shoegaze vocals, plus irresistible hooks and instant transcendence. The boys keep the monstrously appealing rock & roll coming nonstop, with not a second of breathing space between the thirteen songs, none of which exceed 2:45 and four of which run less than two minutes. And for most of the program, everything is impossibly right: the singing is massive, towering, anthemic, the guitars explosive, the beat pounding. The highlights hammer from all directions afterward with battering-ram force; check out the angular rhythmic trickery on "Crooked Scene" that manages to build to an undeniable raveup. Take a listen to the youthful hooks, vocal interplay, simple but sublime melody (buried behind massive, dynamic guitar, of course) on "Nothing Remains." And best of all, put on "Franklin" and feel the room spinning around in some cosmic meeting between IRS-era R.E.M. and Robert Knight's '60s chestnut "Everlasting Love."

You can spot My Bloody Valentine here and there as well, plus a bit of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as in any new band that plays with noise and melody, but the pure pleasures that abound on this LP are an end in themselves; in all seriousness, cue up any of these songs and feel the permanent daylight of guitars chiming, chugging, shouting. Listening to Nothing Hurts feels like being a teenager again, in the best way, all the magnified emotions and dead-eyed understatement and infinite abandon, as though we and the band will live a million years and never feel older than here. When the singer/bassist Kevin Hendrick dismissively contends "I felt like this for ages, just didn't know how to say it," we all stand in angsty solidarity, although it's really the freakish impulsive dancing that Male Bonding involuntarily inspires in me that puts me there.

Admittedly, even at this length, Male Bonding lose some of their momentum near the end. Neither the grungy thrash of "Paradise Vendors" nor the dogged early post-punk imitation "Pumpkin" retain the excitement and power of the better cuts, though stacking their only less than stellar tracks as two of the last three only serves to make everything else more addictive, one ruthless banger effortlessly leading to another.

Nothing Hurts does save its most heartening trick for last; the beautiful acoustic jangle "Worse to Come" is the album's only song without a driving beat, but it will make you shout thanks to whatever heavens that people are still making music so plainly, unpretentiously lovely in a pop/indie context. It will remind you of the stunning Paul Westerberg solo numbers the Replacements used to save for Side Two of their albums, the special bits when the rockers unplug and tell you how they really feel. And better yet, it's succinct, minimal, and boasts piping-hot cynicism, closing on the bitter "Keep her away from me." It is on this cut and "Franklin" that Male Bonding suggests they can contribute more than this single magic moment.

Even if they can't, though, this magic is real -- my choice for the most fun album of the year so far.

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