Album reviews: Motion City Soundtrack and Low


Motion City Soundtrack

Panic Stations (Epitaph)

Lots of bands run out of new ideas by the time they record their sixth album. That wasn't a problem for Motion City Soundtrack with Panic Stations, due out Friday, because pop-punk isn't about new ideas; it's about enthusiastically insisting the old ones are still fresh and exciting. The system works because the most frequently used tricks and tropes will forever feel fresh and exciting to teens discovering them for the first time. Pop-punk doesn't need new ideas — it just needs new fans.

What lots of pop-punk bands do run out of by the time they record their sixth album is enthusiasm. But Justin Pierre's voice still rings out here with the brotherly earnestness of a guy who wants you to tell him who all your favorite bands are but doesn't seem to be hitting on you even a little bit (though the lyrics occasionally suggest otherwise). John Agnello recorded the band expertly at Seedy Underbelly in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, making sure to highlight the one new idea MCS had 17 years ago: to add a Moog synth to their sound.

You could teach the album opener, "Anything at All," in a class on how basic shifts in dynamics and instrumentation enliven a simple song. First verse: Joshua Cain's guitar chugs unaccompanied for five seconds before new drummer Claudio Rivera leads the rest of the band in. Second verse: Guitars drop out to let Matthew Taylor's bass rumble front and center, and then Cain returns to reel off a tunefully nagging ambulance siren riff. And of course the chorus — a melodic loop-de-loop that Jesse Johnson's Moog ping-pongs playfully atop — is stripped down to just voice and guitar toward the close of the song before exploding back to full volume and allowing Pierre to explore just how many syllables the word "all" can contain.

The synchronized guitar and synth riff of "TKO," the album's second cut (and lead single), is just as formulaic and just as fun. From there on out, Panic Stations never gets less catchy, but it does get less distinctive, touching on familiar pop-punk lyrical subjects even though every pop-punk song is really about jumping around in a frantic tangle of friends. "It's a Pleasure to Meet You" celebrates scene camaraderie with the warm assertion, "You are not alone." "Over It Now" gripes about a mean girl who sells their action figures and insists, "I always hated those techno songs / You put on my compilations." The album closes with "Days Will Run Away," a ballad that swells predictably from an intimate hush to a triumphant climax and observes that no one's youth lasts forever — which is also what every pop-punk song is really about, isn't it?



Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop)

Two decades into their career and poor Low are still dubbed "glacial" by lazy critics who must think Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker frolic with penguins and eat Sunday dinner with the Clauses rather than live in a city populated by 86,000 others. Though the inapt G-word implies that the Duluth band drifts inexorably like a force of nature, its rhythms are far more dogged and human. If we're gonna traffic in upper Midwest seasonal clichés (and it's too late to stop now), let's call Low's baseline tempo a trudge through a foot of snow at dawn to scrape your windshield.

That exertion of effort has rarely been more evident than on the band's 11th album, Ones and Sixes, which arrived September 11. The lead track, "Gentle," begins with muffled drum patterns, snares that dissipate into crackles around the edges. Swaddled in a chilly electronic shimmer, Sparkhawk and Parker harmonize lines of a single word each before reaching an ominous chorus, "It doesn't have to end this way." The lockstep groove that Parker establishes with bassist Steve Garrington on "No Comprende" breaks down into spare, desperate thuds, seeming to attest to the difficulty of persistence.

Like their fellow wedded purveyors of hushed noise in Yo La Tengo, Low write lyrics that inevitably imply the confessions and negotiations of a long-term relationship, even if you take care not to hear them as strictly autobiographical. But where YLT's Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley create a cozy atmosphere even at their most doubtful, Low's discussions feel stir-crazed rather than intimate, suggesting overheard references to longstanding disputes no less discomfiting just because no one raises a voice. Even "What Part of Me," which may be the lightest and loveliest song of Low's career, is darker and more questioning than it first sounds, as Sparhawk and Parker complete the titular question alternately with "don't you know?" and "don't you want?"

Low recorded Ones and Sixes at Justin Vernon's studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with BJ Burton, who may have captured the nuance of Sparhawk's guitar better than any of his predecessors. Crystalline lines glint off the edges of these songs like fractured Morricone tributes; multi-dimensional drones surface and expand far beyond their breaking point, most strikingly on the climactic, nine-minute "Landslide," where the guitar melds with the wordless vocals of an emotionally ambiguous chorus.

As always, Low use rhythm and noise to create drama and foreboding rather than to suggest possibility and potential, summoning a beauty that's meant to humble rather than delight. And yes, glaciers notwithstanding, that sensibility — austere on the surface, brimming with anxiety below — does feel like a characteristically Minnesotan response to the demands of a punishing climate. Each winter suggests that a power greater than ourselves has imposed judgment from beyond, and to endure means to celebrate the resulting intensity of emotions, no matter how dark, in order to push through to the other side.