Bless Soccer Team for subtweeting J.J.Abrams, because somebody’s got to. Scan the Internet and you won’t find too many voices dissenting to the intergalactic hype for this winter’s Star Wars sequel. Wherever you’d turn for demurral to the film’s instant pre-coronation, it probably wouldn’t be a release from notoriously parochial Dischord Records.
But Soccer Team’s second album of delicate, smart-kid punk rock is full of surprises, chief among them “Too Many Lens Flares,” whose title I took as a sneering reference to director Abrams’ signature visual tic. “Has film become the last option of the weak?” the band’s Ryan Nelson and Melissa Quinley plead, soon adding, in a perfectly concise critique of modern geek sycophancy, “It’s too bad when genre falls prey to its fans/It’s degrading to subject us to boring test-group demands.”
If there’s been a better indie-pop anthem this year than “Lens Flares”—with its twinkly guitar figures, jogging bass riffs, subtle tensions, and cathartic builds—I haven’t heard it.
Real Lessons in Cynicism, Soccer Team’s first full-length since its 2006 Dischord debut, is an album of affecting vignettes and quick, no-filler flicks at ideas (both sonic and cerebral). It has less in common with any of Soccer Team’s local predecessors and peers than it does with a particular impulse of arty post-punk—the one connecting genre-curious minimalists like Wire, Minutemen, and Young Marble Giants, who fucked around with songwriting forms and never expressed a smart idea in four minutes when they could do it in two. In Soccer Team’s case, that means wry, Morrissey-esque song titles like “Fits of Jealous Rage Are in This Year” and “Lazy Colonist”—and it means an eclectic and erudite collection of songs whose rippers, shakers, and ballads feel like they’re of one piece, all slim and basement-fashioned and precise. It’s a record not of big statements, but of tiny revelations.
Sometimes, those moments of grace and insight arrive via skeptical, jewel-box cultural commentaries, like “Lens Flares” and the fleet, wiry “Best Employed New Beau,” a riff on journalistic vapidity. That’s how it struck me, anyway; Nelson and Quinley write elliptical lyrics that call for projection, not lesson-taking. With its references to “our Virgil to guide” and “this weight I know from Alighieri,” “Fits of Jealous Rage” clearly concerns a descent into perdition, but listeners will have to pick which inferno they believe the song details.
Nelson and Quinley—both multi-instrumentalists and vocalists—formed Soccer Team when they worked at Dischord in the aughts, and reunited for an EP in 2011, after Nelson returned to the District after several years in Michigan. On Real Lessons in Cynicism they’re joined by Quinley’s husband, Dennis Kane, and Jason Hutto, whose ecstatic keyboards on “Dinner With Derelicts” channel the funhouse synthpop of his old band the Aquarium.
Sometimes, loud and fast arrangements (“Lazy Colonist,” “Nose to Chin”) obscure crafty songwriting tricks. Elsewhere, the band takes pop detours into mournful themes, as it does on “Problems With Prolonged Youth” (the title says it all) and “If You Were Here,” a fizzy, low-key cover of the Thompson Twins hit best known for its use in Sixteen Candles. With its moaning keys and lilting guitars, the gentle “Short Term Expectations” almost washed over me, until I listened to Quinley’s crestfallen vocals, which clearly—more clearly than anything else on this record—concern a miscarriage or death of a child. “We had you destined to be the perfect one no one was yet,” she sings, moments before Hutto plays a soul-nagging guitar solo that’s somehow as heartbreaking as the lyrics, at least until this tragic, maybe inevitable kicker: “It is unfair, but it is what it is, and it’s probably best you left.”