California X: Nights in the Dark

California X‘s 2013 debut garnered quite a few Dinosaur Jr. comparisons, which might explain why they sound more like the Meat Puppets on their sophomore collection. The nine-song Nights in the Dark finds the Amherst, Mass., quartet dialing down the fuzz and traveling to the desert—at least psychically and spiritually—returning with moody instrumentals, darker pyrotechnics, even longer hair, a piano. They worked again with producer Justin Pizzoferrato, who handled the Dinosaur post-reunion albums I Bet on Sky, Farm, and Beyond, but otherwise, they’ve pulled themselves away from Mascis and company and bring to mind the sort of lonesome rock oasis the Kirkwood brothers were so good at locating.

The newfound variety has its appeal, and it illustrates admirable ambition, but the best material is still the stuff that blasts from the garage fast and furious. For instance, Nights opens powerfully with the title track—a pleasantly ambling, but urgent wash of ’90s slacker rock that conjures that old Athens band Five Eight and also brings to mind the more focused work of Milk Music (“focused” meaning only six minutes of tripped out riffing). It’s followed by “Red Planet”, a tighter shock of fist-pumping shout-along power punk. These two songs are more fully formed than the material on the debut, and on first listen, had me ready for a minor masterpiece.

But the momentum stalls with “Ayla’s Song”, a pretty and pretty unnecessary minute and a half of solo guitar tripping. It’s fine and delicate and nice, but functions basically as a buzzkill. California X also add water to the fire with the mid-tempo “Hadley, MA”, a turgid song that features great guitar playing from Lemmy Gurtowsky (per usual) and newer member Zack Brower, but otherwise grinds to a halt amid dopey lyrics and a sleepy chorus.

Much of the album’s second half follows this path: the guitar playing and other instrumentation is excellent, but the songwriting feels like an afterthought. There are a couple of two-part songs here, and both could be halved. “Blackrazor (pt. 1)” creates a sighing psych atmosphere that might be the work any group of stoners with a wall of amplifiers, a sunset, and a heart. The revved-up “Blackrazor (pt. 2)”, on the other hand, is muddier, more anthemic, and showcases the group doing what they do well, unleashing an autumnal SST-era rock haze.

Despite the stumbles, Nights includes some of California X’s best work, and these moments are so strong, it’s impossible to write the band off. This is clearly a transitional collection that sees the group trying new things, and you get the sense that they’ll continue growing into a more mature sound. Especially because they do just that on closer “Summer Wall (pt. 2)”, a gorgeous rocker that opens with “Freak Scene” strumming and hiss then fuses technical prowess and immediate, emotional hooks into a smeary, rollicking anthem. It’s a reminder that sometimes you don’t need to escape your early influences, you just need to approach them from a different direction.

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The Twilight Sad: Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

Mainstream success has mostly eluded the Twilight Sad, which is somewhat disappointing and even more surprisingtheir compatriots We Were Promised Jetpacks and Frightened Rabbitstill fill rooms in the States despite being only slightly more “pop,” proof that a certain kind of Scottish miserablism will always play well overseas, especially when delivered with a whiskeyed brogue. Consequently, when you’re the most successful and long-running band with the word “sad” in its name, the obvious question is, at what point does such a staunch commitment to misery become, well, kinda miserable? In the case of the Twilight Sad, it takes about a decade, as everything from the title of Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave to its uncertain sonic direction tells of a band feeling trapped within their own reputation.

Which is somewhat disappointing and even more surprisingTwilight Sad have always been savvy about anticipating diminishing returns. Following their gripping and enduring 2007 debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, Forget the Night Ahead served as the prototypical, “darker, more difficult” sophomore LP, quite the accomplishment considering the already downtrodden emotional tenor that preceded it. But rather than sinking deeper into the murk, Twilight Sad maintained their essence while swapping out almost all of their superficial sonic signifiersturbulent guitar noise and resounding drums were exchanged for icy synths, frigid post-punk, and clangorous drum machines on No One Can Ever Know. In between, they’ve stripped down and reworked their originals for live performances and EPs, and have been open to remixes of their own work. Point being that they’ve covered far more territory than you’d expect from a Scottish mope-rock band and Nobody Wants to Be Here wisely attempts to reestablish the Twilight Sad in 2014 by offering a comprehensive overview.

In a sense, that much is accomplishedwhile the Twilight Sad keeps the machinery around in a supporting role, these are guitar and drum songs, as they were in the past. Meanwhile, Fourteen Autumns producer Peter Katis returns with a booming, room-filling expansiveness that once tied Twilight Sad to his previous charges such as Interpol and the National. But rather than demonstrating the range of Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to Be Here coalesces every one of their modes into a gray, midtempo whole that curtails the extremism on both sides. Eerie synth wobbles interrupt the hypnosis brought on by the cyclical opener “There’s a Girl in the Corner”, but otherwise, the electronics cloak Nobody Wants to Be Here in musty shadows. Andy MacFarlane’s once-volcanic guitar work has cooled to an ashy remnant, as he favors curlicued melodic patterns that also recall the National more than, say, Mogwai. Meanwhile, drummer Mark Devine remains curiously underutilized, forgoing both his punishingly loud thumping on Fourteen Autumns and Forget the Night Ahead and the militant precision of No One Can Ever Knowthe title track and “Last January” respectively recall the obsessive locomotion of No One’s “Sick” and “Don’t Move”, and later on, “Drown So I Can Watch” is only a slight variation on “Last January”.

James Graham colludes with his band’s most sedate arrangements rather than contrasting them, which increases the difficulty of him getting his point across. This, despite his knack for threatening, tensile mantras“So cold I know where you go/ Telling me no,” “So we dance to save them all,” “She’ll carry me away from here.” As usual, the song titles are evocative (“In Nowheres”, “Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep”) and his performances are expressive, but Graham’s words always withhold something crucial, strongly suggesting either childhood trauma still yet to be processed, or deep-seated romantic troubles yet to emerge.  This had usually been compensated for by a jarring musical rupture or an unexpected leap in his vocal range, but Twilight Sad are stingy with any sort of catharsis and so their sonically warmest and most accessible album is their most emotionally impenetrable.

The mixed messages encoded in Nobody Wants to Be Here were hinted at in an interview with Graham from earlier this year; he claimed a rejuvenated interest in the concept of the Twilight Sad but only after a difficult writing process and a year’s worth of discouragement in light of the cool reception that met the underappreciated No Can Ever Know. It certainly couldn’t have helped to see former touring member Martin Doherty use them as a foil for the neon-lit synth-pop he now creates in Chvrches—he told us, “I’m having more fun on stage than I did in previous bands,” the implication being that, hey, being in the Twilight Sad was bringing me down, man. That was the case for Graham too, as he expressed a need to return to making music that works in a big room; and perhaps it’s in a live setting where one can truly bear witness to the Twilight Sad’s newfound commitment, as the lack of palplable passion on Nobody Wants to Be Here is, once again, somewhat disappointing and even more surprising.

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