Unless you completely checked out of indie rock between 1996 and 2006, Steve Ciolek’s voice will sound very, very familiar. It’s a high, boyish wail first attributed to Doug Martsch and later mainstreamed by James Mercer and Ben Bridwell. And Ciolek isn’t trying to sidestep those warranted comparisons on the Sidekicks’ new record Runners in the Nerved World. In fact, the Cleveland, Ohio, band are welcoming them in the most obvious way by working with Phil Ek, a guy who has not coincidentally produced Built to Spill, the Shins, and Band of Horses. There’s a nature vs. nurture question going on with this style, as all four of these guys make music that perfectly aligns with their natural tone—it’s suburban operatic, a small voice for big spaces, giving the outer appearance of rumpled, hands-in-pockets meekness but having arena-ready expanse and resonance. None of them are from major media centers and that informs the distinct kind of restlessness implied twice over in the title of Runners in the Nerved World: It’s by and for adults looking at open fields, vast stretches of highway, or commercial sprawl and still feeling trapped in their own heads.
This is almost an exact repeat of what labelmates Joyce Manor experienced on last July’s Never Hungover Again. After a couple of albums established them as a clear cut above their local scene, both made the jump to Epitaph and got a big-name producer involved. By 2012’s Awkward Breeds, the Sidekicks were punk rock in ethics only, but their angsty beginnings still subjected them to the same ol’ tired comments about alienating their fans from the basement days. And the risk is in how Sidekicks are also transitioning into a keening, melodic, and heartfelt style that hasn’t produced a major new act in a very, very long time—”centrist” indie rock when guitars aren’t necessarily at the center of discussion.
While Runners lacks Never Hungover Again’s consistency and melodic generosity, it likewise functions under the assumption that its new audience might be an anachronism, but it’s one worth chasing: people who value the album not so much as a cohesive, continuous 40-minute piece of music but one where every song justifies the act and trust of spending $10 for the whole. With the exception of the brief, fluttering closer “All Things Run”, everything could be the “single”—the Sidekicks are beholden to huge choruses with carefully constructed lead-ins, warm harmonies, and quotable lyrics about relatable topics. Remove the crusty production from their past work and nothing here should be a major surprise; it’s just more polished in every way, the melodies are less jittery, the dynamics are more pronounced, the presentation is immaculate.
Still, it’s easy to be bowled over by the broad strokes of the first two songs the Sidekicks let go from Runners. “Jesus Christ Supermalls”, from its title on down, is grandiose festival music, weeping guitar lines descending with the speed of an exhausted exhale while Ciolek’s voice beams like a klieg light, hitting the highest possible notes during a desperate chorus. Meanwhile, “Deer” is more sedate and somehow even more startling for its hearty offering of strummy Midwestern roots-rock with Ciolek’s voice constantly in close harmony with itself. In other words, it sounds exactly like Band of Horses, but the kind we haven’t heard since Cease to Begin, not the corndoggin’ county fair stuff of recent vintage; it’s a void well worth filling.
“Jesus Christ Supermalls” and “Deer” aren’t exactly outliers, so Sidekicks’ ability to maintain both the velocity and direct lyricism of their past keeps Runners in the Nerved World from being an unintentional 10-year anniversary celebration of indie rock’s “O.C.” era. Whereas most of the Sidekicks’ comparisons are often framed as an accessory to being a thoughtful, sensitive adult trying to find one’s place in the world, Runners in the Nerved World actually speaks on living that situation—the contrast between Ciolek’s embittered, specific lyrics and a sound that isn’t accustomed to those sort of things doesn’t make Sidekicks a particularly innovative band, but one with a distinct voice nonetheless.
Fittingly, a record meant as a musical transition out of the regional punk scene is stocked with lyrics that are often about just that—Ciolek writes as someone who’s ascended to a level where his peers might want to take shots at him, but still low enough where they can reach him. Runners finds heavy symbolism in the mundane—during “Century Schoolbook Grown-Ups”, the font on merch buttons lets Ciolek know his friends have turned on him, while “Everything in Twos” bristles with the anxiety of watching everyone around you pair off while your own relationship falls apart. “Maybe if this bed could talk/ I think it’d say to get the fuck off,” Ciolek sneers on “Summer Brings You Closer to Satan”, a car-radio anthem for shut-ins. The process of writing “Summer” gets name-checked earlier on “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist”, a masterfully structured song about exactly what the title promises. During its intro, Ciolek sings in a crystalline falsetto about the indignity of having to recuperate from physical writer’s block at his parents’ house, before the band goes headlong into Britpop jangle wherein he’s resigned to an inability to, “Cover up his marks/ His fated heart or really much of anything.”
Fittingly, the true throwback to Sidekicks’ formative years is a memory mashup of trying to recapture young lust. On “Blissfield, MI”, Ciolek yelps, “I feel like how the Bulls felt in ’93/ I feel like how my head felt the last time you kissed me”, a line so dense with possible meanings that there has to be some serendipity in him picking that exact year and phrasing it that exact way. In June of 1993, Chicago won the NBA Championship. In October, Michael Jordan retired and left the Bulls a shell of themselves until he returned in 1995. So then, what does he mean by last time, a “most recent” or “final” kiss? Is this a positive recollection or something far more painful? Is he Michael Jordan, is he the ultimate sidekick Scottie Pippen, or does he think of both as people whose drive for greatness made them seem like sociopaths in civilian life? Or you might not ask any of that. “Blissfield, MI”, like most of Runners in the Nerved World, is such an effortlessly enjoyable listen that you can miss the tension and ambition emanating from a band that’s chasing greatness as an escape from being Midwestern also-rans.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1CEcEWT