Header photo by Andrew Volk
Vancouver garage pop trio The Courtneys are back with a sophomore album that finds a way to combine ’80s girl-band pop and ’90s lo-fi grunge into a palatable package. I’m not a big fan of the slacker rock sub-genre, generally speaking, but new album ‘The Courtneys II’ keeps it on the brighter side with hooky guitar riffs and catchy bass grooves that are easily discernable amidst the general dampening and distortion.
Guitarist Courtney Loove leads the way in crafting a backdrop of fuzzy ambivalence overlaid with unapologetic pop-guitar melodies, followed closely by bassist Sydney Koke and drummer/lead singer Jen Twynn Payne. Twynn Payne’s singing voice is rather sullen and soporific, and her lyrics are somewhat less than profound, but her treble melodies fit nicely over the light, restrained powerpunk of the trio’s instrumental arrangements. (In case you’re curious, Courtney Loove is indeed a stage name; she’s explained it in this interview with The Stranger.)
The album’s opening track ‘Silver Velvet’ immediately displays the grungy guitars and bubblegum vocals that set the tone for the entire album. It’s infectious refrain, “and nothing you say / and nothing you do / could stop me from thinking about you”, is singsong simple, but that quality is probably what keeps it stuck in your head long after the song ends.
Current single ‘Minnesota’ is a bit darker and muddier, with clanging percussion that threatens to overtake Twynn Payne’s vocals. Its lyrics are more melancholy in tone (“not easy to pretend it’s / not hard to let you go / so I’ll see you in the winter snow”), and though the vocal melody doesn’t particularly address that mood, it is echoed in the guitar riff and pulsating bass of the instrumental ending.
The upbeat and frenetic energy of ‘Tour’ captures the anticipation and anxiety of a band preparing to go on the road. Twynn Payne’s lead vocal seems more forward in the mix here, and it plays to the song’s advantage with more positive, ebullient energy coming through. Putting aside the deliberate detachment of the vocals in some of the other tracks on the record, she makes a strong connection in the lyrical lines, “what you have and what you want the most / it takes a long, long, long, long time”.
One of the most memorable tunes on the record is ‘Lost Boys’, which longtime fans of The Courtneys might recognise from just after the band’s debut. Written as an homage to 1987 teen vampire film ‘The Lost Boys’, the song has been floating around the Internet as a single since 2014. The version presented on the LP is cleaned up a bit and extended at the end: rather than fading out to the final lines “you look just like you did in 1986 / and that’s why you’re / a vampire teenage boyfriend”, the album version of the song leads into a groovy 2-minute instrumental outro.
The album takes a slightly darker turn at the midway point, with the murky guitars and muffled drums of ‘Virgo’ and its bass-driven sister track ’25’. The former track conveys the all-encompassing haze of an early romance (“baby, when you are near / I lose all of my free time”), while the latter seems to be losing that initial excitement (“I doubt I would have tried / because I’m a Gemini / I’ll just change my mind”).
Sullen slacker anthem ‘Iron Deficiency’ is a track that probably could only have been written by an all-female band. Twynn Payne’s voice becomes a snarling, rebellious combination of speech and singing in the lines “my hair is breakin’ / my body’s achin’ / in the mirror, I look forsaken”. ‘Mars Attacks’ delves a bit into the weird with its singsong vocals and mindlessly repeated lyrics, but the instrumental bridge showcases a nifty guitar riff that’s not to be missed.
The Courtneys wisely save one of their strongest and most engaging pop anthems for the end of the album. ’Frankie’ starts with a vividly anticipatory intro and leads into an extended chorus at the end, maintaining the band’s characteristically grungy guitar work and a sense of light buoyancy at the same time.
While not overtly feminist in its lyrical content, ‘The Courtneys II’ bridges the gap between two typically male-dominated genres, ironic pop punk and lo-fi garage rock, intertwining the basic elements in a deliberately amorphous and distinctly feminine style. If you’re into deeply profound and poetic lyrics, ‘The Courtneys II” might not be the album for you, but fans of female voices and good guitar work won’t go wrong here.
‘The Courtneys II’ is out today on New Zealand indie label Flying Nun Records. The Courtneys will spend March and April on tour here in North America; you can find a list of their upcoming live dates on their official Facebook.