Review by Michael O'Neill
Much has been made about the proliferation and prominence of 80’s revivalist bands in today’s alternative music scene, whether it be CHVRCHES-brand synthop, The War on Drugs’ penchant for Springsteen-esque heartland rock, or the new wave flavors of the 1975 (whose new album we also reviewed today). But accompanying this movement has been a less visible but just as sentimental resurgence of 90’s alt rock, with London-based group Yuck helping lead the way since their 2011 debut. Equipped with fuzzy guitars, distorted vocals, and tight songwriting, Yuck adopts elements of everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to My Bloody Valentine to Smashing Pumpkins. On their third album, Stranger Things, the group continues with their throwback sound, but to mixed results; where a few songs stand out , others fall flat.
The first of the record’s highlights is album opener “Hold Me Closer,” the lead single which we actually heard all the way back in July. A churning guitar riff and steady yet loose drum beat propel the song as frontman Max Bloom sings, “I wanna see configurations of my dreams.” Three minutes in, the haziness gives way to a more toned-down instrumental outro. The other two preliminary singles, “Cannonball” and “Hearts in Motion,” also emerge as peak moments on the album. The former is an adrenaline-pumping romp that recalls some of the band’s earlier work, particularly “The Wall.” On the latter, which boasts the record’s most playful instrumentals, Bloom describes not seeing eye-to-eye with a partner on how a relationship works: “You call it systematic / I say that’s a lie / You said it’s mathematic / It never is, it never was, it never changes.”
Thankfully, we hadn’t heard every good song on Stranger Things before the full release. Bassist Mariko Doi steps to the mic on “As I Walk Away,” adding a fresh twist to an album that at times verges on becoming monotonous. “Swirling” sounds like a good b-side (ha!) off The Bends (albeit without Thom Yorke’s vocal prowess), and that’s not just because of its mild resemblance to that album’s “Sulk.” Closing track “Yr Face” would fit in nicely on about a half dozen different shoegaze records, and the effects-heavy guitar solo near its conclusion is a nice way to finish.
But the biggest problem with Stranger Things is a lack of distinctiveness, and it’s a weakness that bogs down the entire record. There’s a lack of variety between songs, and big chunks of the album seem to blend together. The three consecutive tracks “Only Silence,” “Stranger Things,” and “I’m OK” are nearly indiscernible from each other, and offer nothing all that interesting in the first place. Memorable hooks are few and far between here, and song titles often fail to produce any kind of recollection of how the track goes, even after repeated listens. Even the best parts of Stranger Things sound derivative of other artists, past Yuck songs, or both. None of these songs are bad, mind you; in fact, every single one is at the very least pleasant. However, too many tracks settle for just being “pleasant,” and many of them in a similar way, rendering much of the album largely forgettable. DIIV recently showed us how to make a cohesive guitar-rock album with a singular sound while avoiding being repetitive or nondescript, but Yuck struggle to achieve the same.
Lyrically, Stranger Things isn’t anything special either. Some lyrics, like those in “Hearts in Motion” and the subdued “Like A Moth” ( “Like a moth I see you burning like a flame / When I try to approach you, I get burned away”) are straightforward yet appealing. Others, however, are less impressive: ‘Would you wait for the ocean / If I wait for you?” asks Bloom on “Down.” On the title track, he sings the line “I hate myself” twelve times, not once with anything more than a lackadaisical sigh, effectively ridding it of any emotional impact.
Yuck has now recorded two of their three studio albums without founding member and original vocalist Daniel Blumberg, and yet it’s his era that continues to define Yuck as a band in the minds of many listeners. The remaining personnel have done their best to recapture the energy and promise of their debut, but without Blumberg it’s proving difficult. Stranger Things is a nice listen, but is nowhere near as compelling as the group’s self-titled record or even 2013’s Glow and Behold. You’ll never be off-put by Stranger Things, but you’ll never be stunned by it, either. If Yuck can reinvigorate themselves with some inventive songwriting and diverse sounds, maybe they can make another great record; until then, we’ll just keep getting easily listenable yet unnoteworthy albums.