REVIEW ROUND-UP: Descendents, John Mayer, Clairo

Descendents

9th & Walnut

More so than the usual crop of albums in the ‘new material from old punks’ camp, there’s a sense of novelty around this new Descendents album. The songs that make up this album are actually re-recordings of the band’s very earliest material, predating their debut EP Fat from 1981, and with most never being released up to now. Just from that potted summary, 9th & Walnut really does scream “completionist-bait” simply on premise alone; rather than a vintage punk band moving forward and continuing to define their legacy (something which even their most recent material has shown they’re more than capable of doing), it’s a glorified rarities compilation that, in all honesty, no one but the most ardent of diehards is likely to buy into. Because it’s not like there’s a whole lot here just in terms of raw material, with 18 tracks clocking in at just 25 minutes to create a package that’s very much here to tie up some loose ends at the very start of their lineage that could’ve just as easily been ignored. This is definitely the sort of material you’d expect from very early on in this sort of band’s life cycle, where the writing is very simple and rooted in snappy concepts that aren’t really expanded, nor are they given the space to. That’s not to say the hooks aren’t there, especially as far as songs like Nightage and Mohicans are concerned which feel very foundational in where Descendents’ pop-punk style would grow, but comparatively, the attempts at tacking bigger or more volatile concepts on You Make Me Sick, It’s A Hectic World or It’s My Hair ring of the inexperience that comes from being so early on. Perhaps that’s not too fair a judgement to make for songs over 40 years old, but at the end of the day, the band did choose to resurrect them, and so the scrutiny that inevitably comes from having them at this point in the catalogue is warranted overall. It’s also worth noting that these versions were recorded in sessions split between 2002 and 2020, which will further compound that nagging inconsequentiality that feels so prevalent across the board.

But even so, 9th & Walnut isn’t bad, not as much as it distinctly falls in the category of a weird novelty that, in its current state, is buoyed by a band that can definitely do more than what this material demands. Again, the distinction does need to be made that this is old work that’s been built on enormously over the decades, but there’s something really nice about hearing Tony Lombardo’s roiling bass just slide over everything, or Milo Aukerman still being a strong, clear vocalist in a way that a lot of older punks can’t live up to. It speaks to the power-pop stylings that the best Descendents material always keeps an ear on, only infused with caffeine and allowed to freewheel more liberally. It makes sense why barely any of these songs will even reach the two-minute mark then, and the fact that Descendents are nowhere near as crotchety as some of their contemporaries makes it so material this deliberately imbued with youthful vigour and boldness doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to replicate. The fast, kinetic movement is still very much a part of Descendents makeup today, and even on songs like Baby Doncha Know and Like The Way I Know that aren’t even a minute long, they still feel complete because of how robust the core features of this band are. Nothing here rings as particularly special—which is probably to be expected from the pre-Milo Goes To College years which really saw them hits their stride—but this is also material that’s more natural to go back to than many could get away with. It’s more for the mood and sound than anything, where Descendents sound so good and distinct even today that just giving these old pieces off the cutting room floor a fresh coat of paint can work. It’s just that this sort of clear creative detour has a shelf life, and it’s especially hard to avoid on an album like this. Definitely for the superfans only then, though if you’re actively seeking out new Descendents music in 2021, nothing her is really going to change your mind on that.

6/10

For fans of: Bad Religion, The Vandals, The Bouncing Souls

‘9th & Walnut’ by Descendents is released on 23rd July on Epitaph Records.


John Mayer

Sob Rock

There’s never been much of an opportunity to form a new opinion on John Mayer outside of what’s already established. He’s a great guitar player with an extremely passionate fanbase, and it sometimes feels like that’s where any analysis begins and ends. It’s probably down to the fact that, on a musical front, there really hasn’t been much to discuss beyond an aptitude for folk-rock and blues that’s serviceable but really only shines when Mayer wants it to. And when that’s fed into the fact that his audience is so dedicated, there’s really no reason to get excited about a new album from the outside looking in. Beyond the fact that singles from Sob Rock have been getting pushed from as far back as 2018, Mayer is well within his rights to fall deeper into the placid, elder-statesman territory of adult-alternative that he’s been edging towards for a while, which may be an understandable move but not a particularly elating one. In reality though, it’s more of a confluence of factors that affects Sob Rock the most, to where it’s not exactly awful, but extremely rarely extends to the wonder that Mayer’s diehards will likely impart on it. Mayer himself is definitely a factor; it’s not hard to see why his silky smoulder has become so adored, but for as often as it’ll slide through relationships here, there’s never a sense of romance that such a delivery would imply. It’s got an almost pickup artist-esque vibe to it, where the spectres of Mayer’s own relationship histories only act as more kindling for that fire to roar, and leave a lyric like “Is the gate code still your birthday?” on Shot In The Dark ringing with a really noxious sleaze. That’s probably an extreme example—there are brushes throughout but they aren’t that full-throated—but Mayer hits an awkward middle ground that never settles in either direction, between a smug, winking complacency that puts himself as always in the right, and the breathy vulnerability that wants to at least give off the impression of something deeper and more intimate. It’s why a song like Why You No Love Me feels like such a colossal misstep, in its grammatical breakages that are probably offensive to someone, framed as endearing and winsome in a way that just isn’t accurate.

That’s definitely where Sob Rock is the most disagreeable, and to give Mayer the benefit of the doubt, when a lot of the tones here are pulling directly from ‘80s soft-rock and new wave, that softened palette is probably designed to tint the lens with which his lyrical eye is being fed through. At least he’s done the work to bring in some of the session musicians for whom this style is more intrinsic to, which makes the whirls of synths taken from Toto’s Africa on Last Train Home or the Dire Straits guitar work on Wild Blue feel more natural and lived-in. It helps that that’s just an appealing sound anyway, and if there’s something that could reasonably complement the yacht-rock / lounge-lizard style that Mayer has adopted, it would be that. It doesn’t do much for memorability though, though that’s probably a consequence of this sort of music as a whole, where the shimmer and the neon hum is given far greater stock overall. On that basis then, Sob Rock feels like a competent nostalgia trip in that Mayer clearly knows what he’s doing, but there’s reason why the genuine articles have lasted so long, and that just isn’t here. The hooks and choruses just aren’t as strong; Mayer as a frontman never brings something more impassioned or maximalist; and while the glittery production remains, the scale is too small to really do too much with it. It’s hard to deny that it’s all well-played and put together, but that necessary flair only really extends to songs like Last Train Home and New Light which will pick up slightly more character. Though, for an artist like John Mayer, now eight albums deep and with no reason to push the boat out in any significant way, that all sounds about right. Despite the complaints that can be levelled at Mayer himself—complaints that, for the record, are not exclusive to this album—Sob Rock is the sort of lightweight, predictably inoffensive fare that would come from an artist neck deep in adult-alternative money-printer. It’s not the worst of this stripe, but Mayer’s not making essential or thought-provoking music here either; more often than not, he’s not even making music that sticks in the brain a few seconds after the song has ended.

5/10

For fans of: Toto, Richard Marx, Michael McDonald

‘Sob Rock’ by John Mayer is out now on Columbia Records.


Clairo

Sling

To an extent, a lot of the same preamble offered to girl in red ahead of her debut album to be similarly applied to Clairo here. Both have come from the scaled-back bedroom-pop scene and amassed huge fanbases from it, with the only real leg up that Clairo has being that her song Sofia actually picked up some mainstream charting presence off the back of TikTok swell. Even beyond that, there’s a degree of springboarding from that exposure that both artists seem to be heavily leveraging, though where that was in terms of spacing out the bedroom-pop sound for girl in red, Clairo has instead borrowed Jack Antonoff from the other pop girls to lend some production, not to mention some further pop parlaying in her cameo on Lorde’s comeback single Solar Power. Though, to expect a full-on reinvention from Sling would probably be naive; those elements feel more like peritextual garnish on an expectedly hushed and restrained indie-pop album. And that alone can pretty much encompass Clairo’s strengths and weaknesses as an artist, in how this sort of thing will appeal to some and be total Kryptonite for others. From a personal perspective, it’s leaning more towards the latter, but what she’s doing can still be appreciated. There’s definitely a naivety as far as the songwriting goes, but it’s not bad from the perspective of poetry alone, where a lot of ruminations of family and moving on come to the foreground after moving back home during lockdown, and the small-scale perspective allows that to have a bit more weight to it. Not too much, mind—this is bedroom-pop, and Clairo’s vocals are among some of the most waifish the scene has—but for an ostensibly youthful viewpoint that’s targeting that same demographic, it’s at least honest. It’s enough to excuse some of the broader ideas that can dip into indie-girl archetypes, and for something as homespun as this is, Clairo as a performer at least sells it well enough.

But with this sort of thing, when it’s for a completely different audience, it’s hard not to account for how personal taste can just cripple any sort of legs it might have, and that’s practically the whole issue with Sling. Even with a bit more polish from Antonoff’s production, an instrumental palette this tiny and meek just doesn’t get any sort of needle moving, especially when it can feel like each track succumbs to the same drained, shrunken formula that just underwhelms on sight. There’ll be the occasional moment like on Joanie where traces of AM soft-rock will slide into view, but it’s not enough to pull up a pretty nondescript instrumental range, the sort of thing that Clairo thrives on but rarely finds a way to stick with. That’s the issue with a lot of bedroom-pop in this vein, where the focus on being so small-scale and intimate supersedes the desire for any sort of groove or momentum, and even though Sling might occasionally flirt with those ideas on a song like Amoeba, it’s just easier to fall back into padded, pillowy folk-adjacent indie that might be pleasant to listen to sometimes, but can really sustain a 45-minute album. At the same time, the appeal can be identified here too, in what’s presented as a very raw take that anyone could replicate, but when you’ve got Antonoff’s production that justly trims away any loose ends, and the fact that Clairo herself is something of a superstar within the scene, it chalks up to a creative decision to makes the whole thing feel even flimsier. These are issues that plague bedroom-pop as a whole, especially the branches seeing some bigger swell, but when Clairo is unable to break from that, either positively or negatively, Sling slips away so much easier. It’s probably fine for what it is, but what it is doesn’t produce much of an impetus to care.

5/10

For fans of: girl in red, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail

‘Sling’ by Clairo is out now on FADER Records / Republic Records.


Sleep Waker

Alias

Look, with the usual reputation of style and quality that precedes UNFD’s metalcore bands—their many, many metalcore bands—forgive us for not going into Sleep Waker’s newest with much notable vigour. They feel like the billionth iteration of this particular sort of band, even from just a cursory glance, where they’ll end up being perfectly serviceable and yet utterly interchangeable with the scores of similar and / or identical acts just waiting in the wings. That is to say, Alias is fine enough, as far as albums sticking so rigidly to scene conventions go. Sleep Waker sound as good as one would expect, where the booming, calamitous tech-metalcore sound relishes in steely production and a sense of atmosphere, and making some of the samples and electronic outlines a bit more prominent is a fairly nice touch. It’s hard to imagine this not going down well among the Northlane or Thornhill camps, and with a bit of slighter runtime, Alias has a little more urgency overall that works in its favour. The guitar and bass crunch feel as though they accomplish more within that loftiness because of it, rounded out by Hunter Courtright as a vocalist who, like most of the album, isn’t bringing a tremendous novelty with his performance, but has the resonance and power in his tone to leave a mark.

Though, it should say quite a bit that so much of Alias’ positive assessment has to be qualified, because really, you’re not getting much more enjoyment here than with basically any others for whom the exact same points could be applied to. This isn’t an album that prides itself on versatility, be that within its scene or even in the context of itself; it’s why so few tracks or highlights can be singled out, when it’s hard to really know what to choose for that. Granted, an arm’s-length approach probably isn’t the best one to go into an album like this with, and for anyone invested in tech-metalcore and the bands it’s produced, there’s probably a lot more to gain from this. But even from just the comparison points that will inevitably flare up, it’s hard to see what that might be, seeing as there’s really no USP that Sleep Waker can claim as their own. Even the vaunted album concept about nightmares that feed into personal experiences, there’s enough vaguely sci-fi hand-waving that can be applied to generally group it in with plenty of other albums in the same vein. It’s hard to call Alias a bad album when it still does all of that well, but it’s more so another piece of the formless tech-metal morass that’s formed over the past five or so years, where a genre that once felt fresh and exciting has really become bogged down with bands who desperately need more of an identity. Sleep Waker are probably one of the better ones, but that’s edged out to a very marginal degree, where it’s hard to say if it even matters all the much. To some, sure, but in general, they’re another candidate to eventually be lost in the shuffle.

6/10

For fans of: Northlane, Thornhill, Void Of Vision

‘Alias’ by Sleep Waker is released on 23rd July on UNFD.


Capstan

SEPARATE

There’s an almost unplaceable sense of nostalgia that permeates through Capstan’s work, possibly because they draw from around a decade’s worth of post-hardcore, often at multiple junctures all at once. On SEPARATE, they skate through the Warped Tour screamo of Alexisonfire and Silverstein (for whom themselves have a sizable gulf between them), to a more technical and sharp-edged variant à la Dance Gavin Dance, but it always comes with the acumen of a band who know how to do a lot more than just parrot swathes of what came before them. The shifts and tics are noticeable, but there’s real cohesion that buoys them, both in terms of melodic sensibilities that emerge even of heavier tracks like shades of us and tongue-biter, and in a genuine creative thread that makes this a pretty great listen. Anthony DeMario has the soaring vocal tone synonymous with that older era of post-hardcore—to where, paired with Silverstein’s Shane Told on alone, there isn’t a great amount of difference—and that does wonders for cultivating a poppier vibe on take my breath away // noose and sway. He, along with the rest of the band, have a sharpness and punch that comes from using their production polish as a base, rather than bending to its will. For every breakdown that feels underpowered, there’s a good handful of moments that easily pull Capstan back, where they’ve got a sense of progressive yet palpable groove in the bass work, or guitars that can deliver a surprising amount of modulation to marry with the saxophone on blurred around the edges.

Rarely do Capstan feel like they’re overextending or packing in too much where it doesn’t work; there’s a lot going on, for sure, but it’s not suffocating or overwhelming. Contrary to a lot of albums in this vein, the mix is given room to breathe and allow lighter or stiller instrumental moments come to bear, and that’s the important key to where SEPARATE works so well. For an album centred around self-reflection and soul-searching in the wake of guitarist Joe Mabry’s divorce, the understanding that Capstan have of emotional resolution couldn’t be more important, and its in that they avoid the unwanted extremes of both ends of their timeline, in either mawkish prostrating or migraine-inducing volume. And yet, among all that, they’re able to brush against both sides in a way that feels healthy for the sort of music they’re making, where there’s definitely artifice and a reactionary streak, but not one that loses its own grasp. That’s why it’s so impressive that Capstan’s focus is borderline unshakable here, and SEPARATE really does excel as a result. It’s this sort of post-hardcore done exceptionally right and on the band’s own terms, in a way that feels simultaneously creative, accessible and earnest to a fault. Furthermore, it all coalesces as a really natural step forward for this branch of the genre, expanding rather than reworking, and bringing forth a sharpness and precision that still has a lot of imagination to offer.

8/10

For fans of: Silverstein, Senses Fail, Dance Gavin Dance

‘SEPARATE’ by Capstan is released on 23rd July on Fearless Records.


Young Pretorians

State Actors

The sort of music that Young Pretorians make is very well-established, the sort of alt-rock-infused punk wearing its heart prominently on its sleeve and desperately seeking solace from the humdrum and overwhelm of modern life. It’s a path that many have walked before, sometimes in truly exceptional fashion, which puts a fair bit of pressure on this band right from their debut EP. Obviously State Actors isn’t an out-the-gate morphing into the next Menzingers, but it’s an encouraging start, if only because Young Pretorians already display a good aptitude for their source material. They’re not quite getting the nuance in songwriting just yet, meaning songs like Desperation Party Scene and You Look The Same don’t hit as squarely with their broader content, but the underlying sense of ennui and burnout is definitely there, without scuppering the potential for big choruses along the way. It’s a very uniformly workable style that Young Pretorians have so far, where they aren’t really showing their hand in terms of unique flair, but that isn’t to their detriment either. They’re trending in a direction where earnestness can do more of the heavy lifting in the vein of some of the better Britrock fare of the 2010s, and that’s not a bad look for them, to be fair.

The sound takes a similar cue overall too, operating with the sort of punk flavouring that’s distinct enough to not be outright Britrock, but also not pile on the intensity either. Again, The Menzingers are a clear comparison, but there’s a bit of The Gaslight Anthem in the heartland swell of Average Conversations, Between Average People, and the production balance on the whole is nothing to particularly write home about but is a lot more accomplished than most would expect from such a new band. Even for just a five-track EP, State Actors does have a good sense of direction in which to take itself, albeit one which, at this stage, is definitely focused on compounding influences to get itself there. Young Pretorians can’t really be faulted for that at such an early stage though; this is clearly still a band finding its feet, and landing on some pretty stable ground as they already have is a good place to start. State Actors feels more like a launchpad on the whole, actually, where a lot of the inspiration that’ll come to define Young Pretorians going forward will stack up on what’s a pretty solid foundation they’ve already got. They’re already getting there with Pete Derwent having a more distinctly British curl in his vocals, but hopefully they’ll pick up even more steam to keep going. There’s more potential here than greatness at the moment, but that’s a fine note to start off on.

6/10

For fans of: The Menzingers, Jimmy Eat World, Cold Years

‘State Actors’ by Young Pretorians is released on 23rd July.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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