No. 2 – No Memory

4 out of 5

Label: Chainsaw Records

Produced by: Tony Lash (engineered by), Elliot Smith (mixed by)

Dark, cynical pop has had many, many purveyors over the years, and depending on how forgiving you are with that description, artists tossed in to that bucket have hit the top ten lists both in mainstream and indie markets.  Often, though, when a lyricist is tagged as exploring more emotional subject matter – married to delightful, Beatles-esque strums or folk-influenced fancies – it’s either, like, about a relationship, or lately, about politics, or the words are straaaained for meaning, and lordy do we love little quotable soundbytes that supposedly sum up how we’re feeling.  (Y’know, in very poetic, pretty ways.)

That stuff misses the mark for me.  Relationship woes make sense only fleetingly; politics are important and yet the conversation feels too simplified the way it’s often put to song; and pretty words are often just that.

Neil Gust, of Heatmiser – a band that included Elliot Smith, who was surely one of the aforementioned all-stars of this scene, criss-crossing o’er and back from indie to mainstream – would seem to feel the same disconnect with many of these attempts at capturing the disenchantment that would seem to be a very universal, human experience.  Somewhat continuing on from the final Heatmiser album, No. 2 maintains notes of that group’s early punk edge, but then matures it into some of the hookiest, most gorgeous pop rock in town.  The instant toe-tappability of Spoon comes to mind, but whereas Britt Daniel likes to keep a hard-edge to his tunes – and maybe bops off into slightly more open-ended lyrics – Gust, and No. 2, are pleased to keep things delightfully low key.  There are solos, but they’re patient in getting to them; there are quicker-paced numbers, but Gust’s airy singing requires everyone to stay in line.  Which sounds like restraint, but it’s more natural than that: echoed in Gust’s lyrics, which are evocative of the back alleys and dark corners of our thoughts – very alone while in a crowd – this is the real face many of us wear: fully comfortable being out and about but never really sure what we’re looking for, or what we want, or who we are.  ‘No Memory’s tracks don’t strain to prove this point, they just exist with it; stating it plainly.  By not pushing for some holy genius lyric, Gust ends up writing some of the most timelessly relevant, wonderfully sad stuff I’ve heard, synced up to these grooving, rocking beats.

The sound of the disc, meanwhile, is slightly imperfect in serving this.  It’s understood why enginner Tony Lash and mixer Elliot Smith might’ve gone with a lighter touch and smaller range on the sounds, as it would seem to match the tone I’ve described above.  Which, song by song, it does.  But as we move from rockers to more layered, nuanced tracks like Just Answer the Man, the impact of the transition is completely lost; what could’ve been a wonderfully subtle song lands within the same register as those which should be a bit louder.  As often happens, repeated listens wipes this away, as you start to hear the variations without assistance, but the disc definitely lacks the punch of followup What Does Good Luck Bring?, which corrected this.

Alas, my tastes in pop don’t seem quite aligned with wider tastes, as groups like No.2 seem like a rarity.  And after two brilliant albums, they were no more.