The Phlegmatics, Life is Better with a Soundtrack
There are bands that frustrate me because they don’t quite hit the mark, and then there are bands that frustrate me because they do hit the mark but never actually capitalize on it.
The Phlegmatics are that second kind of band, because goddamn it, I love ‘em, but for the past decade they’ve released an album, played a couple of shows, and then — poof! — vanished into the ether, until three or five years down the road, when they release their next album and do their next couple of shows. They’re like the pop-punk answer to Jandek, appearing mysteriously with a finished album of quirky melodic-yet-heavy rock in hand and then disappearing back into the fog of the North Houston woods.
Granted, I know this isn’t a band of 20-year-olds that can all quit their low-paying jobs and hit the road for 8 months at a stretch; despite the generally youthful sound, brothers Jonathan (lead vocals/guitar) and Ethan Marshall (drums/vocals), dad Dave Marshall (lead guitar/vocals), and Jonas Velasco (bass/vocals) are all bona-fide adults with careers and mortgages and spouses and all that other shit. And believe me, I get that. I’m right there with ‘em.
But still, it kills me whenever they come out with a new album, and it blows me away, and then they jump on a stage, beat their instruments for a while, wave cheerily goodbye, and don’t poke their heads out again for a couple of years. I take back the Jandek comparison, by the way; they’re like the pop-punk Punxsutawney Phil, poking his head out annually before ducking back down his groundhog hole and waiting ’til the crazy humans all go away. (Plus, I like Phil more than I do Jandek, so there’s that.)
sigh. Okay, now that I’ve ranted a bit and gotten that off my chest, let’s move on to say this: The Phlegmatics’ Life is Better with a Soundtrack is a damn fine album, one of the best I’ve heard all year. Beyond the absolutely-correct album title, it’s just a gigantic wall of Weezer-meets-Descendents guitar roar and shy-guy-with-glasses harmonizing, and it freaking hits the mark dead on nearly every time.
With 2009′s Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics, I complained that the guitars seemed to get pushed to the background, but the Phlegs definitely don’t have the problem here; those crunching, just-distorted-enough guitars are right up front, blasting out of Marshall stacks into your face and ears like tripled hammers of solid melodic/heavy awesomeness. It’s heavy when it needs to be, and sharp-edged when it needs to be, and (rarely) delicate when it needs to be, and it all functions like a well-oiled machine powered by righteous rock fury.
Fair warning time: fans of the band’s earlier stuff may be left a little cold at first on tracks like “Disappeared,” which has a surprisingly classic-rock-ish tinge and is almost a heartsick rock ballad, for crying out loud (love those great twinned guitars), or the dramatic alternarock of “The Center of the Universe,” or the closing title track, which is more psych-rock than anything else, to my ears.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of pop-punk goodness and an abiding love of Weezer still both in evidence, as on tracks like stomping, snarling track “The Party” or “Satellite,” the latter of which is seriously reminiscent of unsung power-pop icons The Stereo. There’re some great, Bob Mould-ish guitar lines in “9 Steps,” too, and moments throughout that make me think of Overwhelming Colorfast, Arcwelder, and Nirvana (no, seriously), so keep an ear out for those.
It’s just that the band’s been leavening things with more of, say, The Beatles, Cheap Trick, and Pink Floyd this time around, like on the anthemic, thundering “Turn It On,” which comes off like an ode to arena-rock gone by.
It’s worth noting, too, that a lot of the quirky/nerdy stuff from the band’s two previous albums is largely absent — with the exception of the pun at the core of “Slowly But Shirley,” the band’s mostly playing it straight this time, with no more tributes to old-school video games or kung fu-fighting friends or Greek epics. And frankly, that had me worried. That nerdiness has been the band’s hallmark for ten freaking years now, so how could they possibly fare well without it?
To put it simply: the band’s grown up. Not completely, mind you (that’d be a goddamn tragedy), but enough that they’ve gotten more subtle, like on the awesomely catchy “Satellite,” which wears its science-geek badge proudly even though taped-together nerd glasses got left at home. It’s ironic, actually, given that nowadays anything geeky has somehow become bizarrely “cool,” with whole TV shows devoted to OCD-afflicted pop-culture fans dissecting TV shows and making in-jokes.
But hey, The Phlegmatics have never been interested in doing things because they were in any way “in” or popular, but rather aim squarely for the opposite — so maybe now, in this changed, geek-friendly world we live in, songs about unibrows and punk rock NPR DJs aren’t just that risky anymore?
The band seems to know where it stands, judging by “9 Steps,” which is a shout-along blueprint to, um, being in a cool-ass band nobody knows about — the song’s full title is apparently “(Achieve Obscurity for Your Rock Band in) 9 Easy Steps” — over heavy, sharp-edged, Hüsker Dü-esque guitar lines. Here’s hoping they’re finally proven wrong this time.