Album Review: STRFKR – Miracle Mile

[Polyvinyl; 2013]

Miracle Mile marks a change for STRFKR. On their third album to date, the Portland, Oregon band have given way to their childish profanity of a former band name (Starfucker) and instead opted for a MSTRKRFT-like nounless text speak version (perhaps Glasgow band Shitdisco could have saved themselves had they changed their name to SHTDSCO, or something marginally better than their original name, like Honky Tonk Indie Crew). STRFKR have also started working like a band in the studio. Before, the songs were primarily written by bandleader Joshua Hodges, and considering his efforts to date have been hugely infectious at their best moments, but disappointingly inconsistent at their worst, the prospect of bringing in some other minds seemed like the right kick the band needed to get them on the straight and narrow.

What Miracle Mile proves, however, is that either the other members of STRFKR are terrible songwriters, or they merely distracted Hodges too much, muddying his work and making him lose focus. The album is a tired, hollow affair that’s a dull slog when taken as a whole. The band have tried to widen their palette and move outwards, but in doing so have made themselves shallower. You’ll find new instrumentation and sonic tricks (the loud, stuttering, ravey synths on “Leave It All Behind”; the minute long drone at the end of “Nite Right”; the autoharp on “Kahil Gibran”; the acoustic ditty “Isea”) but for most part, the band are still clutching straws with chirpy synths, uninteresting drum machines, and spaced-out vocals.

Sometimes sticking to what you know is fine, and there are a couple of tracks here that play well in passing. “Malmo” is a good example, with staccato Nintendo synths, likeable whistling, and a bass riff that fuzzes out in a way that feels like the band are reaching outwards. It ebbs and flows, and although it’s not the band’s best track to date, it shows there’s still some fuel left in them. “Say To You” doesn’t push forward, but with its semi-languid pace, charming bleeps and bloops, and friendly and likeably lazy vocal take, it comes off as a hat tip to the sound of their self-titled debut. It recalls a more carefree time, and when surrounded by tracks that feel like their competing for your attention with every blast and burst of noise, it’s a welcome moment of calm.

Too often the tracks that are blaring at you–almost begging to be liked (in a similar fashion to the hollow, soulless material on Reptilians)–are full of noise that’s more nasal, off putting and unlikeable than ever. The guitar melodies on “Fortune’s Fool” almost sound like their souring against each other while “Yayaya”’s irritating vocal hooks are easy to guess from the title alone. Lead single “While I’m Alive” is arguably the main offender. Beginning with a wordless falsetto voice, the track boasts plenty of riffs and synth squiggles to hook you in on first listen, and it even tries to move itself onwards, going into an almost deadpan strut. Needlessly, though, it brings back its main hook for a final and undeserved victory lap in the song’s closing thirty seconds. By then it begins to test your patience. It’s catchy at first, and it’s probably the only thing with any sort of instant appeal, making for no standout moments that glimmer through the haze–like the presence of “German Love,” “Pop Song,” and “Florida” on Starfucker, and “Julius,” and “Death as a Fetish” on Reptilians.

The main problem with Miracle Mile, though, is that it’s too long. As brief as the moments of goodness may be, they’re lost in a sea of noise that becomes near indistinguishable when taken in one sitting. And without an impressionable start like on their previous album, attention can wane within ten minutes. What I do appreciate is that on the last third of the album, the band dial things back a bit, and dedicate most of the space to slower paced numbers, but coming after an already tiring half hour of music, it doesn’t act as an antidote but rather like a ruthless attempt to keep the party going no matter what. Broken down, the contents of Miracle Mile can be more enjoyable, and you can smirk at moments that take cues from odd places, such as the “Teenage Dirtbag” acoustic intro to “Beach Monster,” or the burst of synths that begin the likeable “Atlantis,” which sounds like the band trying their hand at Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” again. The aforementioned slower material on the latter half is hit or miss in smaller doses. Even the four final tracks can lose their direction when taken together (it accounts for twenty minutes of the album’s runtime), but pick and choose and you’ll find “I Don’t Want To See,” which manages to restrain itself despite a bubbling melody that rises ever so slightly come the bridge, or the slightly ostentatious seven minute kind-of kraut-rock exercise “Nite Right.”

The title’s kind of funny when you think about it, if not ironic. A mile isn’t that far, and yet the band has gone off track despite the short distance. Before, you might have accused them of shooting upwards for the stars, but now they sound like they’ve almost jack-knifed into an obstacle. It’s rather miraculous that they’ve still managed to salvage a few moments of joy here, but to save themselves from dissolving into something more than a passing interest (as “the band with that name”, for instance) they’ll need to find a path of some sort to stick to. Believe it or not, I’d still like there to be a day when I could happily say with excitement, “OMG NEW STRFKR ALBM.”