Fine Young Cannibals: Eat Skull polishes up its act.

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Back in the early ’90s, there was a whole mess of rock bands that took pleasure in releasing the shittiest sounding records possible. Pavement, Guided by Voices and Sebadoh were relatively popular masters at burying pop hooks and classic rock riffs beneath layers of tape hiss, noise clutter and distortion. ’Zine writers, whose work was also artfully unprofessional, labeled the sound slop-rock, bedroom pop, or the pizzazz-less default, lo-fi music. As the pop culture cycle turns, we now have a new crop of hiss-loving bands—Eat Skull and Siltbreeze labelmates Times New Viking, Sic Alps, and Psychedelic Horseshit. It is fitting that they’re all on Siltbreeze, one of the best lo-fi labels from the ’90s, and appropriate that the scene has been burdened with the equally cruddy (though more NSFW) genre tags “shitpop” or “shitgaze.” As evidenced on its latest, Wild and Inside, Portland, Ore.–based Eat Skull has the ability to escape from those limiting classifications. The sophomore album has a bit more polish than its debut, Sick to Death, although it’s not like Wild and Inside is going to be mistaken for Viva la Vida or anything. The upgraded mics and preamps still result in a raw sound, but the band sounds tighter than before and displays an astonishing ability to vary styles. They seamlessly careen from the upbeat garage of “Heaven’s Stranger” to the gloomy, synth-pop of “You’re With a Thing” to the skittery hardcore of “Nuke Mecca.” The standout track is the blessedly literal, “Cooking a Way to Be Happy.” One of the best food-themed rock songs since Mack Vickery’s classic “Meat Man,” the song is nearly overwhelmed by Spike Jones–esque cooking sound effects—knives whacking away on a butcher’s block, the tinkling of utensils, the piercing crescendo of a teapot. However, all the silly effects in the world couldn’t obscure the truth in the line, “The only way to feel happy is to know what it means to feel sad,” which could serve as an analogy for the way Eat Skull’s gorgeous pop melodies emerge from the muck. The album’s closer, “Oregon Dreaming,” is a beautiful ode to the band’s adopted home state. It’s practically bucolic and, apart from the merest rumor of dissonance, there’s nothing shitty or lo-fi about it.