opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
The greatest strength of LOSE, the third full-length effort from indie vintage act Cymbals Eat Guitars, is its sense of perspective. For the first time, singer/songwriter/everything-doer Joseph D’Agostino is drawing from his own life, and much of what he has to say have notes of tragedy, some quite overt. The album itself was mainly inspired by events from his teenhood, including the death of his good friend and bandmate Benjamin High. Needless to say, LOSE is an emotionally involving record, but it’s more light than heat. Thankfully lacking the myopic, misdirected antagonism that often accompanies records of this nature, LOSE finds D’Agostino making peace with these experiences behind ever-improving songwriting.
As sensational as some of this material may seem on paper, D’Agostino resists dramatizing his stories. At this point, he’s far enough removed from the details that he can begin to make sense of it all, and his summations of what is surely the most confusing era of your life are insightful and occasionally brilliant. He retains his distinctive, chock-a-block lyrical style, but the words are measured, candid and ground level, and their delivery is notably improved. His new approach yields dividends right from opening track, “Jackson”. After an extended intro with bursting guitar bends and pummeling drums, D’Agostino drops us into the middle of the action, introducing sundry characters and settings: “You’re taking two Klonopin/So you can quit flippin’ and face our friends… We’re riding through Jackson Pines/Towards Six Flags to wait in lines”.
LOSE is loud, but despite its volume, the record relies mainly on introspection to get its ideas across. “Child Bride” inverts the formula, and is the most shocking track on the album for its graphic depiction of abuse. Despite its nursery rhyme melodic structure, it’s LOSE’s figurative and literal pivot point; it’s the fifth song out of nine for a very good reason. But the moments that drain you are nicely balanced. “Chambers” is a sleek pop number that gets excellent mileage from the chemistry between D’Agostino and Matthew Miller, the band’s only other remaining original member.
In contrast to its intimate narrative, LOSE covers a lot of ground musically. This is not necessarily new for Cymbals Eat Guitars. D’Agostino’s has already established a knack for penning engrossing, multi-part odysseys – most notably “Rifle Eyesight” from 2011’s interminably underrated Lenses Alien. “Laramie”, the longest track on LOSE by a sizable margin, clocks in at 8 minutes and combs through a sea of guitars, tempo shifts and a dearth of moving parts with seeming grace. The lines between most of the songs are quite sharp. There’s the rollicking cowpunk of “XR”, which drops off into a wash of keyboard textures on “Place Names”, a transition that shouldn’t work were it not for the consistency and dependability of the about-faces that LOSE pulls off.
Of course like everything Cymbals Eat Guitars have released, LOSE is deeply indebted to 90s production values. John Agnello, known for his work with the likes of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., is back behind the soundboard. His fingerprints are everywhere, but he’s also suitably modernized many of the sounds he’s been helping to create for the past 30 years (though the detuned, mumbling bass at the beginning of “LifeNet” belongs quite indisputably to the Wrens). “Warning”, quite possibly the best song of the band’s career, is given a highly flattering stereo treatment, and deftly balances the snarl in D’Agostino’s yelps with spindly, gasping guitar lines, make sure that gems like “You’re looking mighty ghostly just like Bowie on Soul Train” are fully audible.
It’s easy (some might say too easy) to argue that Cymbals Eat Guitars are writing this particular strain of indie rock about 15 years too late. D’Agostino is more preoccupied with telling his stories than paying homage to his heroes. LOSE portrays him as a songwriter greatly improving his ability to place emotional heft behind cleverly revived guitar tones and silver-tongued turns of phrase. The band may love the sounds of Built to Spill and Superchunk a little too much, but they’re also far too adventurous to settle for apery, least of all on LOSE. It’s their best work yet. B+