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There are few things more curmudgeonly than declaring that an art form has run out of ideas. But if you were paying attention to the discourse around indie rock last year—or, hell, if you were merely listening to much of the music—it wasn’t too hard to conclude that retromania had reached epidemic proportions. On their debut full-length, Arlington/Baltimore trio The Tender Thrill riffs transparently on everything from Bruce Spingsteen to T. Rex to The Ramones, bathing it all in clangy atmosphere. Yeah, it’s vaguely retro after the current indie-rock fashion, hinting at familiar eras without sounding like any one thing in particular. To which the band seems to say: “So what?”
That much is clear from the album’s bold opener, a 10-minute, baseball organ-driven slow-burner. As an introductory handshake, “All Night” is pretty illuminating: Here is a band that is big on atmosphere, will never say no to an extended guitar solo (or three), and is not trying to get anywhere in any particular hurry. The song has a seaworthy, mid-tempo lurch, which makes it feel like a vaguely trippy cousin to Ted Leo’s epic shanty “Stove by a Whale”; the organ drones like a J. Geils Band hit melting in slow motion. If there’s any confusion as to why the song needs to be so long, the few lyrics that are discernable over the crunching waves of distortion clear things up: “Come on down, baby,” frontman Brian Faust sings in a slightly more nasal version of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s classicist deadpan. “We can do it like that all night.”
All of which makes The Tender Thrill fairly contemporary, never mind the blacklight-worthy cover art. Like a number of present-day indie rockers, The Tender Thrill finds exciting ways to cross psychelia with garage rock. “Geena” calls to mind the skuzzy, Nuggets-sized melodies of San Francisco’s Ty Segall, while the album’s forward-moving wooziness isn’t too far removed from Slave Ambient, the 2011 album by Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs. Once you’ve been lulled by the atmosphere, The Tender Thrill doesn’t throw many curve balls, but the hooks on stomp-along standouts like “Katy P.” and “One and Only One” make the record a largely gratifying front-to-back listen. The album bobs along with a steady, chugging pulse as subjects come and go (“Geena” is followed, in short order, by “Katy P.”) and romance casually bleeds into melancholy. “Heard you met someone/Heard it’s been nine months,” Faust sings on “It’s Alright,” before repeating the titular refrain with a gently wistful shrug.
Although a few of the five-minute-plus songs overstay their welcome, more often than not The Tender Thrill finds an ideal balance of tight songwriting and mood-establishing haze. Some of the tricks are familiar, sure, kind of like rock ‘n’ roll comfort food. In this case, that nonspecific familiarity is part of the thrill. —Lindsay Zoladz