[Sub Pop; 2021]

Eventually, slacker rock grows up. The godfathers of the genre, Pavement, made it a decade before exclaiming how burdensome it was being a band, and those who have followed closely in their path came to the same conclusion, eventually. The laid-back lyrics, the messy live performances, and the unbothered attitude all fuel this youthful ideal that being in a rock band is just super dope. This is basically the gist of Toronto’s Kiwi jr., who manage it with a tiny bit more flair.

Making a splash early last year with their debut Football Money, Kiwi jr. are back already with Cooler Returns, another collection of jams that conjure those prime college days. Although, these power-pop anthems range more broadly in subject matter. They sing musings that 90s kids (who are now in their 30s, mind you) have been clamoring for lately to remind them of simpler times. Most of Cooler Returns is an extension of what their last album was – that’s intentional. These aren’t meant to be revelations, or even to be taken as on-point analysis of a time or place. This is music for the soul, if your soul is literally craving a beer and a nap.

While Kiwi jr. may not stun with their insightfulness, they still write foot stomping jams that don’t necessarily always require lots of thought. The Pavement comparison still stands, and until they can shake that influence they’ll still come across to a greater or lesser extent as Pavement-lite. A lot of what works best on Cooler Returns is when they stray from that formula – the title track starts out similar to a Stephen Malkmus song, but does bring a sweet hook for the chorus “It’s not fair to be / Strung out on the back of your ATV / Throwing dead birds into the air / Singing “Howdy, neighbors / how’d you like my new ride?” / And now I can see that after spending some time apart.”

Released back in September, “Undecided Voters” sums up what Cooler Returns is largely about – although Jeremy Gaudet’s lyrics are impressionistic enough to be interpreted in many ways. “When the results come out / the grind begins to shout / Machines printing their own sculptures / We’re going all in on the new subculture,” seems to touch on the turmoil of false information and its impact on those caught in the middle. Whether this was intended as a motivator for picking sides, “Undecided Voters”’ pithy sentiment isn’t lost, but it does come up short due to its own indecisiveness.

Nevertheless, the hook-laden performances on Cooler Returns are full of zeal and wit. Gaudet tosses all his ex-acquaintances into a blender during the opening “Tyler” as he recounts how he was “falling apart in the green room / while you drank the headliner’s rider,” but ultimately decides that he knows he can make it on his own without them. “Maid Marian’s Toast” keeps things cool, with a summery surf rock vibe – this is windows down rock, perfect for a drive cross-country.

This second round of easy-going quasi-punk doesn’t reach the highs of Football Money, but it does show a dedicated band churning out steadfast rock. The appeal of Kiwi jr. hopefully won’t always have to be their assimilation with 90s forebears – bands that were once put in that same pool, like Speedy Ortiz, have managed to break those shackles off and venture into new and daring risks. So this quartet gets a pass this time, but there’s only so much gas left in this tank before it runs on fumes.

69%