Long, dramatic instrumentals are indie-rock speak for Let's have our tongues shake hands. Why does anyone even bother writing lyrics? The smartest ironic-T-shirted singers haven't taken their cue from "Don't Talk, Just Kiss," which found the Wedding Present spending so much time telling everyone to shut up and make out that you wanted to punch them in the face with your lips. Your average shoe-gazing singer is smarter than that: Her fuzzy guitar interludes allow the audience to think How sexy--she must be the strong, silent type. And no one is any the wiser if the real reason she's not singing is because she's thinking, I have had so many Botox injections that my mouth no longer works.
Take the Stratford 4. Listening to the introduction to "Rebecca," the first and best song of their debut, The Revolt Against Tired Noises (Jetset), you initially think that it's going to be a swelling epic whose emotional content reaches the audience entirely without the help of words. The drumsticks flirtatiously tap the high hat, fingers plunk a few cautious guitar strings, and then before the guitarists can think about baseball, they prematurely flood the song in an exhilarating My Bloody Valentine climax. But moments later singer Chris Streng nearly throws a wet sheet on the afterglow, offering a melodramatic, retroactive pickup line: "Could I walk you home, or go for a swim in those brown eyes?/There's something about the way that your mouth says mesmerize." Maybe. But there's something about Streng's mouth that says "This cliché is, like, brought to you by My So-Called Life."
If it's not the ghost of Jordan Catalano that makes Streng prematurely profess "Ten minutes we talked, I think I'm in love, Rebecca," then it might be the fear that his offer to do the breaststroke will be denied next time around. It's no wonder that five songs later, on the less fuzzy rock-out track "Displacer," he's lamenting, "He met her on a Saturday night, and by Sunday it was already over." But maybe that's for the best: As with their noise-pop contemporaries in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (whose members, Rob Turner and Pete Hayes, formerly played with Streng in the San Francisco band Wave), the Stratford 4 make their best, most emotionally jarring songs when they work themselves into a heartbroken nervous breakdown. And they're even better when they don't try to explain the beautiful mess that guitarist Jake Hosek, drummer Andrea Caturegli, and bassist Sheetal Singh have created.
When the California quartet launch into their lovely, sprawling 15-minute closing track, "All That Damage"--which melds the jangly twee-ness of Elephant 6, the deep-sea whale calls of Smashing Pumpkins' "Drown," and the repressed psych freakouts of Yo La Tengo--they sound like Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley funneling decades of relationship tension through their effects pedals. Just before you're submerged in the bending guitars, Streng insists, "I can't hear your reply over all those noises." And then, as if in some existential epiphany, he seems to understand that his own Valium-inous vocals are just minuscule drops in the orchestral waves of sound. He gives up on the vocals. And you give in to the music.