Some people are inescapable creatures of nostalgia by their very design. Haunted souls for whom the art of today contains the inevitable trace echoes of yesterday down to its very shoes. We’re terribly afflicted backwards-gazers, us Generation Y survivors, forever chalking up the failings of our current, troubling times with those golden-tinged days of warbling VHS and cassette, of slap bracelets and Crystal Pepsi and 120 Minutes. Derrida called this past-obsession “hauntology,” the tendency of empires in decline to align themselves with the ideals and halcyon glows of the previous. Taken in that respect, music is hauntology perfected.
As a kid in the western Massachusetts of the early nineties, my landscape was one of Mongoose BMX bikes, oversized Shaquille O’Neal jerseys, and building treeforts at the edges of suburban cul-de-sacs. It wasn’t until an early-twenties musical awakening that I realized what I had missed as a child, and irrevocably lost with a move south at the start of middle school: local music. Western Mass boasted a hardcore and indie-rock lineage to be envied, from Amherst’s Deep Wound and, later, Dinosaur Jr., to the related and adored Sebadoh, from my own nearby hometown of Westfield. As a kid, the hip college hotspots of Amherst and Northampton seemed as far away from working-class Westfield as the surface of the sun.
So when word comes via the blogosphere that a new Amherst band is not only generating startling waves of buzz, but doing so in the style of those once-glorious Pioneer Valley heroes, my ears prick up with admitted bias. The band in question is California X, and their thunderous distortion rumbles, and candy-coated pop sensibilities lurking beneath the din, are part of a welcome return to the sounds of indie-rock’s glory days over the past few years, a loose contingent that includes other promising outfits such as Yuck and the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
California X have all the right moves, so to speak. Sticky-sweet hook instincts and a pop-punk-anthem singalong quality lurk in the very grooves of barnburners like “Curse of the Nightmare,” “Mummy,” and the extremely Pixies-like “Pond Rot.” More contemplative tracks such as “Sucker” and “Lemmy’s World” take on a vaguely Replacements-like wistfulness while still maintaining this album’s blasted wall of guitar pig-piling. The mix is appropriately thick and sludgy, corroded and white-washed in all the proper spots, and sounding nearly as genuine as anything SST or Homestead might have put out in the waning days of the Reagan era.
Still, make no mistake, this isn’t just hero worship, or even cleverly accurate nostalgic aping. California X throw some surprising melodic curveballs and chord-changes into the fray now and again, showcasing a serious knack for knotty, complex songcraft. There’s the occasional hint of soaring stadium-metal guitars, as well, without the slightest hint of winking irony. Taking things back a step or two further from the late eighties/early nineties, this could qualify as any air-guitar-worthy awesomeness blasting from your sister’s mullet-head boyfriend’s Trans Am on the first day of summer vacation.
Dilute your influences enough and you’re no longer merely the sum of them, or so the maxim goes. California X’s self-titled first toe-dip into the indie-rock hot springs pulls off that magical feat of sounding like all those bands you love while still coming off fresh and original; if this debut had been merely competent, workmanlike, it would’ve been a promising and auspicious start for a possible new talent to watch. Instead, it’s one of the young year’s best all-out rock records, the kind of fantastic full-length that some kid in a garage will one day look back to themselves, maybe when plugging that guitar in for the first time.