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In a recent Pitchfork review of Deleted Scenes’ latest album, Lithium Burn, critic Ian Cohen (no relation) committed one of the most tired clichés an indie rock critic can make when reviewing a D.C. band: evaluating them by their hometown predecessors. Indeed, the survivable-but-unflattering 6.5 review name-checks the Dismemberment Plan at least three times and suggests that they’ve “hit a couple of benchmarks their fellow D.C. bands surely envy,” which includes working with Jawbox and Burning Airlines’ J. Robbins and, uh, something about the Dismemberment Plan.
It’s unfair to write about new local bands through the context of D.C.’s rich musical past—there’s so many bands doing their own unique thing, working hard to break out of the shadow of D.C. music’s yesteryear—but members of the indie-pop trio Golden Looks aren’t coy about the local legacy that preceded them. Their rich, occasionally brilliant self-titled debut takes the complex post-hardcore sound that’s become D.C.’s biggest musical export and propels it into new territories by adding a time-tested pop sensibility. The album is as head-scratchingly angular and dissonant as it is ridden with infectious hooks.
First and foremost, Golden Looks is a pop band, and their debut takes careful measures to let that be the first impulse. The album’s spry, knotty opening track, “Hey Say,” opens with a trio of melodic “oh-whoa-oh’s” sung delicately by guitarist/bassist/vocalist Julia Novakowski over a frantic riff before propelling into the ear-grabbing chorus. “Hey say!/Do you really want to go up, up, up, up, up,” Novakowski sing-shouts with sugary sweet command.
Songs like “Hey Say” and the soaring, bouncy “Champions of the Imagination League” are where Golden Looks are most comfortable. On these tracks, upbeat, jittery riffs collide with dancey, indie-pop rhythms, creating something that lands roughly between Q and Not U and British jangle-pop pioneers the Wedding Present.
But the band isn’t afraid to get weird, either. The album veers into straight-up math-rock territory every so often, serving as a stark (but not too flaunting) reminder of the members’ technical prowess. Take, for instance, the album’s third track, “Geometry,” the title alone perhaps a cheeky, self-aware nod to the band’s own angular tendencies. Like a polyhedron, the song occupies multiple planes, jumping from riff to riff in a stilted flash. It starts off as a kind of kraut-rock/post-punk jam before swelling into a darkly danceable chorus, with Novakowski singing “I know/You’re goin’ ’round it all/I know/ it’s all around the wall,” bridged by a barrage of “get up, get up, get up, get up”s and “oh ah-ah-ah-ah”s that beg for a sing-along.
But what really drives the album are the intertwined, noodly riffs Novakowski and guitarist/vocalist Nestor Diaz trade back and forth. On certain tracks, like “Cosmopolitan” and “Sirens,” the duo is so rhythmically in sync, it’s as if the two are talking in a secret, invented language. That conversation, of course, drives the melody of the record, which never goes where you expect it to, but doesn’t ever disappoint.
For most D.C. bands these days, it’s a struggle to be taken seriously when the national conversation around the local indie-rock scene is perpetually asking “When is Fugazi reuniting?” and “When’s the last the last time a D.C. band has been relevant?” It’s no wonder that, with that kind of constant nostalgic navel-gazing from rock critics, a lot of local bands are distancing themselves from that sound—which makes it all the more impressive that Golden Looks can pull it off without sounding disingenuous. Their debut is as self-assured as any: Their angular impulses never get in the way of crafting finely tuned pop ballads, and they proudly carry the banner of their local influences without buckling under its weight.