March 01, 2006

Boyracer "A Punch Up the Bracket"

One of the toughest things for me to do is admit when one of my favorite bands makes an underwhelming album...which is why you won’t find a review of Boyracer’s 2004 full-length Happenstance on this website. By no means was it a bad album — after more than 15 years of consistently making music, head ‘Racer Stewart Anderson has honed his craft so thoroughly that he’s practically incapable of sucking. However, there were a number of flaws that kept me from latching onto it as quickly as I did to previous Boyracer releases. Some songs suffered from a lack of synergy. The lyrics looked good on paper and the music sounded good on the stereo, but when put together, the results often felt incomplete. Other songs suffered from a strange timidity. Happenstance was the first album that Anderson and his wife Jen Turrell recorded on the solar-powered studio that they recently set up on their cattle farm in Arizona. (Let the sentence marinate for a minute so you can understand just how COOL that is!) You’d think that such autonomy and isolation would remove their inhibitions. Unfortunately, Stew and Jen sang as if they were afraid to disturb their nonexistent neighbors, and played as if they were scared of breaking their equipment.

Fortunately, the three EPs they released in 2005 signaled a gradual rebound, as if Stewart and Jen were slowly getting accustomed to their new surroundings. Now, they’ve given us a full-length that makes good on the promise of those EPs in every way. A Punch Up the Bracket is English slang for “a punch in the throat,” and that’s exactly what both longtime fans and newcomers will receive from this least metaphorically.

First of all, Stewart and Jen deliver their most spirited singing and playing yet. On “The Toilets of Northern Europe,” “Contradictions” and “Kids Don’t Follow,” Stewart’s loud and strained crooning harkens back to the man who struggled to make himself heard over layers of distortion and feedback a decade ago on classics like the Pure Hatred EP’s “He Gets Me So Hard.” His wife matches him with equally aggressive singing. She hollers behind Stew like an overeager schoolgirl on “Geordie Lout,” and her lead vocal on their cover of the Petticoats’ “Normal” is probably the best Kathleen Hanna impersonation I’ve ever heard! Stewart’s guitar playing has become more intricate, and his drumming is faster and flashier than ever. Jen’s bass lines boast a McCartney-esque tunefulness on “No Tears,” “The Desperate Hours” and “Kids Don’t Follow.” There are a few songs on the album that were recorded with a full-band, but if you don’t read the liner notes you won’t know the difference.

Second of all, the duo takes more chances on this album with their production and their arrangements. Many songs put cheesy keyboards in the places where Stewart would normally insert more guitar feedback. “Yr Silent Years” is a dreamy slice of synth-pop that betrays Boyracer’s under-acknowledged shoegaze influences. “Pleasantries” is a successful experiment with beat displacement. “The Desperate Hours” is built off a disco rhythm that would normally be associated with the kind of bands that Pitchfork classifies as “dance-punk.” On the verses of “Perennial Underdog,” Boyracer even does a convincing impersonation of rumba! Occasional songs also employ psychedelic production tricks like backwards recording and phase shifting. Aside from “Stand By Your Words,” which sounds like it was recorded in a well that was soundproofed with tinfoil, every instrument and voice on this album sounds crisp and distinct.

Last but not least, Stewart’s lyrics fit much better with the music, forming hooks that rarely require more than one listen to sink in. Boyracer didn’t call one of last year’s EPs Insults and Insights for nothing! Every song boasts either a brilliant dis (“All your pretty moves, fake shyness and expensive guitars won’t save you from tedium”) or a profound nugget of wisdom (“You should always live your dreams whilst you have all your limbs/30 years from now, you’ll be cramming all your enjoyment/Into what you have left of yourself”) — and most have both!

Bands as prolific as Boyracer, regardless of how many awesome songs they have lying around, often have trouble organizing them into cohesive full-lengths. With A Punch Up the Bracket, Stewart and Jen have made their first truly great album, an all-killer/no-filler bonanza that makes me jump around the room like an idiot for 45 minutes every time I play it. It’s too early to start making year-end lists, but I’m pretty sure that this album will be on mine.

—Sean Padilla

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Jen Turrell said...

One of the toughest things for me to do is to admit when one of my favorite reviewers starts off what ends up being a good review of a current album, by extensively slagging off a previous album. Thanks for the great review Sean, but you realize if someone were to just breeze over the beginning paragraph, they might hit the work 'underwhelmed', and think, oh, I might as well stop reading now. I personally think it's high time bands start reviewing the reviewers!!! Don't worry Sean, you'd get a gold star from me. Hope we'll catch up with you again some day! Love, Jen Racer

Anonymous said...

I agree, "Stand by your words" do sound a bit strange, but I don´t agree with you when you said that you don´t like the "Happenstance" album, that´s a really, really good album.
/Martin Javelin-racer