May 11, 2006

The Like Young "Last Secrets"

The Like Young occupies a peculiar place in the ever-growing procession of rock duos consisting of current or former married couples. They’re more guitar-driven than Quasi or Mates of State, but not as much as the White Stripes. Conversely, they’re not as musically limited as the Stripes, but nowhere near as diverse as Quasi or MOS. Whereas the Mates exude joy and Quasi wallows in pessimism, the Like Young is consumed by indignation. Many critics have constructed entire reviews of this band’s music out of these comparisons, but they’ve all fallen flat. In my opinion, the Like Young’s most notable distinction is that, unlike all of the aforementioned bands, they keep getting better and better with each album they release. The band’s third and latest album, Last Secrets, is even bigger of an artistic leap from its predecessor So Serious as that album was from their 2003 debut Art Contest.

Last Secrets might be the angriest power-pop record you’ll hear all year. Even without a glance at the lyric sheet, guitarist Joe Ziemba’s snot-nosed sneer sounds as if he’s just two seconds away from spitting in your face – except for when he switches to a gorgeous falsetto. This IS power-pop we’re talking about, after all. Read the lyrics, though, and you’ll discover the Like Young’s knack for writing vivid yet concise portraits of antisocial behavior, failed relationships and abuses of power. On “For Love or Money,” Joe sings of punching doors in public; two songs later he leaves a party early, repulsed by the false congeniality of those around him. On “Some Closure,” drummer Amanda Ziemba sings cherubically about a breakup: “It took a bed, with brief talking/A simple end to what was dragging.” On “All the Wrong Reasons,” Joe chastises an old man who pursues a woman 30 years younger than him. On “Dead Eyes,” he rails against gender inequality and sexual exploitation (“She can’t reach your wages, but she can visit hotel rooms/She can’t share your stages, but she can service your back room”). Not since Boyracer’s A Punch Up the Bracket have I heard such focused attacks sugarcoated in song.

The Like Young knows how to flesh out its sound out in the studio without going overboard. Some songs are book-ended by ambient interludes, and every once in a while an over-dubbed synthesizer will provide counterpoint. Otherwise, Joe and Amanda use only the instruments they play on stage: guitar, drums and voice. Joe de-tunes and double-tracks his guitars to compensate for the absence of bass, but that’s as close as the band comes to glossing up their sound. I’m not saying that every band should rigidly adhere to its live setup in the studio, but it’s good to know that the Like Young can do so without sounding incomplete or monotonous, especially over the course of a 13-track album. Of course, this is also due to the improvements that Joe and Amanda have made as musicians and writers. Up to this point, the sameness of Amanda’s drumming has been the band’s stumbling block. Last Secrets, though, finds her finally taking chances with her rhythms. She’s still no Sheila E, but she’s way better than Meg White. Last but not least, no song on Last Secrets passes without the band throwing a monster hook our way.

The Like Young gives us both “power” and “pop” in equal measure. Their distorted guitars, brash rhythms and angry lyrics make their music easy to thrash around to when you’re in a bad mood; their note-perfect harmonies and catchy choruses make it easy to sing along to when you’re in a good mood. They’ve been on a winning streak for four years and counting, and Last Secrets shows no signs of letting up. Stop reading this and buy the album already!

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