Are we all tired of lo-fi, yet? Has the practice of some asshole holing up in his garage or basement or parents’ summer house and piling distortion on top of a couple– and, if said lo-fi artist is a virtuoso, maybe even three— chords and a vocal melody so half-assed that it makes Stephen Malkmus sound like Mariah Carey finally reached its point of over-saturation? Perhaps it was Nathan Williams of Wavves basically turning Pitchfork into a hipster TMZ, Dum Dum Girls signing to Sub Pop, music fans over the age of 16 using the rather abhorrent term “shitgaze,“ or the audible slap on my forehead when a kid at the bar was schooling his friend on some really cool up-and-coming band called Sebadoh, but it’s totally understandable if you feel lo-fi has put on the Fonz’s leather coat with some swim trunks and jumped the shark. With the way things are going for the genre, you could very well anticipate Jay-Z showing up at a Wooden Shijps show, or Kanye bigging up Ganglians on his blog.
But then, something funny happened on lo-fi’s unlikely trip to the bank; the best band got lost in the shuffle.
Eat Skull, led by Rob Enbom, come from Portland, a town best-known for esoteric indie-rock superstars, wispy-eyed folkies, and about 40% of Kranky Records’ entire artist roster. Sick to Death, the band’s Slitbreeze debut– inspired by Richmond, CA-based rap group C.I.N.– was a gut-punch of a record, commendable for its brevity (14 tracks in 27 minutes) as much as its sound (recorded, pressed and released for probably less money than Coldplay’s taco budget). Despite the abrasive distortion as present as the use of guitars, the record was a highlight reel of Enbom’s songwriting ability, skating through genres with relative ease while his peers were content with writing the same two– and, if said peer was a virtuoso, maybe even three— songs over and over again. You get the feeling that if Eat Skull were based in Brooklyn or something, they would be all over the hipster tastemaker sites right now. But the dudes in Eat Skull don’t seem to be sweating it; they haven’t decided to throw cheap-shots at other bands in the genre like Psychedelic Horseshit, and they haven’t decided to change their band name to something utterly stupid like, uh, Psychedelic Horseshit. Eat Skull didn’t run around trying pathetically to grab headlines to increase their cache within the ranks of the genre; they did the one thing that none of their peers could seem to get a grasp on. They got even better.
This year’s Wild and Inside, released a scant 11 months after Sick to Death, shows that Enbom and his crew have not only stepped up the recording quality of the songs, but the raises the bar even higher when it comes to the songwriting. Opener “Stick to the Formula” almost plays like a winking analysis of the arrested development of most bands in the lo-fi genre, with Enbom half-shouting, “I don’t like it any more than you do,” which could be taken as commentary of the latest incarnation of lo-fi. The song itself is a flurry of guitars, keyboards, and drums, sounding as though they were filtered through a kazoo, where, compared to their peers, at least, gives the band a Radiohead-like instrumental depth. In a landscape full of artists who subscribe to the conceit of making a record that sounds like they were just fucking around and recorded a bunch of songs on the fly, Wild and Inside succeeds because it’s constructed like an honest-to-goodness record. There are ballads (“Talkin’ Bro in the Wall Blues,” the excellent “Dawn in the Face“), there are instrumentals (“Surfing the Stairs”), and there are hardcore-punk freakouts (“Nuke Mecca”). But most importantly, there are killer pop tunes. “Cooking Up a Way to Be Happy” and closer “Oregon Dreaming” are acoustic-led jaunts that wind the cassette to the bygone eras of the late-60’s and early-90’s, respectively. “Killed by Rooms” is a sugar-rush of skuzzy pop-punk that is every bit as good as “No Hope Kids” or “Teen Drama”. “Heaven’s Stranger”, with its clangy surf-rock and irresistible vocal and instrumental melodies, easily surpasses most songs released this year, regardless of genre. Enbom’s outstandingly intuitive ear for pop music takes Wild and Inside much farther than if it were just reliant on the record button of a Dictaphone.
So, when it comes time to make those year-end lists, and everybody’s bleeding from the ears from revisiting the trough of lo-fi records released in 2009, just remember which band is most worth the risk of tinnitus.