Quarterbacks, the eponymous 19-song debut by this vibrant New Paltz trio, has one foot lodged in the great tradition of ’90s indie rock: the seminal indie of Pavement, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, Archers of Loaf and the rest. Those diverse bands shared an aesthetic, an art move of sorts that defined the era and made them family: Take super-smart songs with delicate and beautiful melodies and handle them with shocking disinterest and indifference; smeared, pitch-careless singing; unapologetically amateurish playing that stumbles the razor’s edge between inept and ept; uncompressed, untidy and naturalistic production values.
It was offensive music to many, at the time: snotty simply by virtue of its radical and privileged slack. It might have been punk if only it had been more committed, if only it cared. Daddy, why doesn’t it care?
A somewhat anomalous and raucous release for the New Paltz-headquartered Team Love Records, Quarterbacks plays out like a feverish, inexhaustible rant of great melodies and lyrics that are almost-but-not-quite derailed by songwriter/guitarist Dean Engle’s vocal delivery: quiescent, resigning, distracted. But unlike the indie bands of the ’90s, this band thrashes forward at all times without a hint of opiate lag. They push. In their breakneck double-time tempos one hears the caffeinated zip of pop-punk; in the scratchy guitars and thin, intentionally bass-deficient mixes, a bit of those early Husker Dü records and even some Minutemen sans funk.
It is punk, no doubt; but punk, if you haven’t noticed, has gotten pretty big and lush lately. This punk honors the dry, unvarnished and uncorrected values of that old indie. It might actually take you 19 songs to register fully that there is not one vocal harmony on this record, nor a second guitar anywhere.
The beautiful tension in these 19 super-short, raw and high-energy songs comes from an aesthetic miracle: How in the world does Engle’s relaxed and preternaturally languid delivery of his love-intoxicated melodies manage to keep up with drummer Max Restaino and bassist Tom Christie in their BPM-chomping, eager downhill flight? I don’t know, but it does.
In the rare moments of calm – like the brilliant, genuinely philosophical coda of the standout track “Center,” or in my favorite song ever, the 55-second slice of New Paltz life called “Knicks” – Engle’s singing suddenly bears a striking resemblance to the light, insubstantial waft and uptown melody of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. The rest of the time, he sounds sorta like Murdoch dancing for his life on hot coals.
Maybe the cost of Quarterback’s taste for tachycardio tempos is lyrical clarity – which is a shame, because Engle’s lyrics are astonishingly fresh and good, all the time. The sheer volume of zingers and keepers that poke out through the din may send you scrambling for the lyric sheet, and that is when this stuff will really open up for you if it hasn’t already. Snippet songs like “Dogs” traffic not in twee punk romance, but in the casual street-detail surrealism of Frank O’Hara or d. a. levy.
As he manages the paradoxes and ambiguities of not-quite-so-young-anymore love, Engle comes off as both in it and outside of it, feeling it and observing himself feeling it. This twin romantic-and-realist perspective ends, more often than not, in something like existential despair, as in the meta-manifesto “Simple Songs”:
I believe in pop music
the way I wish I believed in God
and without question
I wish there was
that I could subscribe to
to give my life
Cuz I don’t have
a life plan
I just have
this little band
with simple chords
but simple songs
won’t save your soul
The only thing
that speaks to me
are catchy melodies
the same chords
all the time
E C G
the only damn thing
that speaks to me
Quarterbacks celebrate the release of Quarterbacks on Saturday, February 21 at 5:30 p.m. at the Team Love RavenHouse Gallery at 11 Church Street in New Paltz. For more on Quarterbacks, visit https://quarterbacks.bandcamp.com.
Quarterbacks CD release show, with Pecas & Cal Fish, Saturday, February 21, 5:30 p.m., Team Love RavenHouse Gallery, 11 Church Street, New Paltz.