Slip on the cans on any sun-drenched afternoon. Open up the music listening application of your choice. Flick to your saved songs and hit shuffle. Watch as the streaming service takes you on a sonic journey through your musical archives. The sounds change, fluctuate, warp themselves in real time as you make your slow commute home. There are layers upon layers now, orchestras over guitars, synthesizers over drum beats – the bass guitar complimented by the rhythm of a cowbell. You notice something creeping in, beneath all the additions – something from inside yourself. It’s a difficult realisation and one that perhaps you’ve always been aware of. It’s the realisation that, despite all the wonderful sounds you’re being exposed to, the song you’re listening to just isn’t that good.
A lot of bands are very clever – they hide their inability to craft a tune beneath effects and studio wizardry. They immerse you in soundscape of their creation and distract you from their self-indulgence with a clever bloop or the low hum of an 808. There’s an old music industry saying that says the way to tell a song is good is by stripping away all the extras and playing it on a piano. If it’s still a good song laid bare, it’s still a good song.
E is for Exbats, the debut vinyl LP from The Exbats, proves this theory entirely; the fourteen song compilation of two earlier releases is a testament to strong song writing. There is no need to hide behind delay pedals or over-saturated reverb. Drummer and principle vocalist Inez McLain lays her earworm-vocals out front and centre – a source of great enjoyment for listener, with her croons as powerful as her near shrieks and her capacity for melody a breath of fresh air. So rarely in today’s world of garage rock do the singers place their words so brightly in the mix. Too often have I had to search for some semblance of lyricism, the message drowned out beneath heavy guitars or chaotic drumming. Worse still, they’re barely even present, placed in the songs as a whisper. McLain, the daughter (for this bands core lies in the clever musical symbiosis of father and child) belts on ‘2027’ that she wishes to ‘sing about the flowers’ and she makes us want to sing too. This is a record of solid pop songs, coloured with the power of family and sprinkled with an urgency that can only come from a strong desire to stand out.
Opening with the re-recorded ‘Are We Dead Yet?’, E is for Exbats starts as it means to go on – a rhythmic note on the piano sits as an anchor beneath a Pixies-esque guitar; simultaneously discordant and harmonious. It’s a clever effect that reminds me of the first time I sat down to listen to Best Coast, who managed to present perfect pop songs with a certain grittiness that took them away from the saccharine and into the sublime. The tongue-in-cheek tone of the albums first track continues – ‘Everybody Loves My Mom’ telling the story of the matriarch generous with her mind-altering substances – ‘I Was In Yr Video’ framing a love story in the celluloid world, and in particular the world of Music Television, an art form so antiquated now that its existence barely even seems real. ‘MTV died’, Inez sings and I am reminded of an afternoon spent watching Tom Green drive a bulldozer outside the MTV offices in Camden Town. The songs on this album seem to reflect those years perfectly – rebellious and direct, honest and forthcoming.
The voice of Inez sits perfectly with the clever, yet simplistic musicianship of her guitar-playing father, Kenny McLain. His approach to the songs is clearly to let the talents of his daughter sit at the forefront of their compositions. The riffs hold that air of familiarity without really straying into the realm of cliché. This balancing act is a difficult one – it is all too easy for garage rock bands these days to wear their influences (The White Stripes, Jay Reatard, The Black Keys etc.) too clearly on their rolled-up sleeves. Songs can start to sound all too similar when the reliance on the floor tom as a source of sonic depth becomes all too clear. The Exbats manage to avoid this, instead taking the musical simplicity of The Ramones and combining it with the sort of hooks that the Breeders became so well respected for.
The album finishes with the grooving ‘Xena’. The irony of the opening lines ‘I don’t got words to fill this song so you don’t get to sing along’ is biting – sat upon my sofa, the screeching riffs washing over my ears, I felt compelled to stand and shout along with the refrain of ‘Xena’. ‘You will do it again and do it, do it, do it’ – this seems to be the mantra of the Exbats, who have fought a long time to get to the position they are today, as one of Burger Records most visceral musical forces.
Pick up E is for Exbats if you like solid songs that come at you with sharp teeth.
Pick up E is for Exbats if you’re sick of songs written in factories getting stuck in your head all day, if what you want instead is proper craftsmanship developed over years of hard graft.
Pick up E is for Exbats and let the fourteen tracks here soundtrack your commute and bury themselves in your ears.
Review by Alexander Sarychkin