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.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1J5RjrF