Douglas Martin goes to the barber with the worst haircut in town.
I’m standing in the control room of KEXP’s live performance studio. Bulbs on the walls flicker in a hypnotic pattern. Cheryl Waters, the station’s longtime midday DJ, is watching Dean Spunt and Randy Randall plow through an incinerating version of “Send Me,” looking on as proudly as the few of us in the control room, separated from the trio by a glass partition and a huge, state-of-the-art mixing board. Cheryl has a comforting, motherly charm about her, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite things about listening to her show all these years.
In the control room, I’m beaming with pride because a decade ago, I would have never imagined the scenario I’m currently in: Sneaking away from my desk at KEXP to watch my favorite band perform. It’s safe to say both I and the band have come a long way.
A decade ago, Nouns was No Age’s thundering arrival, the crowning moment of the leaders of a new generation of indie-punk heroes, a watershed moment for a buoyant scene congregating in a Downtown Los Angeles alley before serving Coca-Cola, Snickers bars, and some of the best punk bands the West Coast had produced in several years.
Now that L.A. Weekly is a husk of its former self—a shallow Trojan Horse ferrying a conservative, capitalist agenda—and the Smell is to be imminently replaced by condos, Snares Like a Haircut represents a No Age in comfortable adulthood (both members married, both members fathers), thrashing toward a new promised land, rushing headlong toward a horizon which seems a lifetime away on foot or horseback.
Many of No Age’s best songs ferry the feeling of ecstatic rebirth in their bright, pulsating droning. I’d be remiss to refer to the album as a “return to form,” because only the two members of No Age truly know what they’re trying to accomplish as a tandem, but Snares Like a Haircut is deeply reminiscent of all the things I loved about Nouns, though presented differently. For starters, they’re grown men now, pretty far removed from the twentysomething punks on the ride of their lives, going to MTV and considering themselves “the undercover spies for the rejects.”
The album represents a more adult No Age, which may sound painfully boring to some, but produces some very inspired material for the band. Opener “Cruise Control” fades into focus and charges along, leaving a vapor trail of bright colors as the greatest No Age songs do. At the center, half-shouting in the din, is Dean Spunt, whose lyrics draw the composite sketch of a person searching for something golden and just going in circles, seeing people who all look the same.
“Tidal” sounds like falling out of the sky, starting in the stratosphere and crashing through the network of branches in a forest of tall trees. Spunt here sings of lying in bed, face up, with the visages of people who care about him standing above and looking down. The clattering chorush of “Stuck in the Charger” is augmented by the feeling of flailing in a riptide, while the grinding, scrambled, squalling guitars on “Drippy” make way for two cups sitting on a table together and needles littering a park.
No Age are far from the first band to make dwelling in anxiety and insecurity feel like felicitously stomping out a glittering fire with multicolored flames, and they will be far from the last. But the way the music emotionally counterbalances the feelings in the lyrics in such unexpected and thrilling ways is why their approach to punk music is so vital.
“Soft Collar Fad” and “Secret Swamp” are about dissolving relationships, the former dissecting the line between perception and reality (“Maybe I got problems/ Maybe I don’t, but it’s not for you to say”) and the latter featuring a grinding guitar that sounds like an off-key saxophone before scribbling a few disparate guitar noises together, lyrically mulling over the distant memory of faded dance steps. “Seems so far again,” Spunt sings.
The awesomely-titled “Third Grade Rave” feels like the band still violently gesturing toward the horizon that is so far away. I think it’s easy to feel that way in the year 2018. By the time closer “Primitive Plus” rolls around, the droning is blaring like several ray gun toys going off at the same time, the drums are stuttering and rolling backwards, and Spunt sings the final words of the album: “Nothing around me tells me/ I’m better alone.”
At the end of their KEXP session, Cheryl asked Spunt and Randall about the name Snares Like a Haircut. Randall qualified what he was about to say as potentially pretty stupid, but offered a very insightful explanation: He said as music nerds, you can always tell where drum sounds on records come from, just like haircuts; and then went into a very touching segue about how he and Spunt are both fathers now, and it feels as though time is this nebulous thing, and the only real thing about time is now, the moment in which we are in at this very second. He asked, “What is time?” Cheryl chimed in: “Time is a haircut!”