Crystal Skulls

Suicide Squeeze

Christian Wargo has some nerve. In the last line of “Away From Home,” the last song on his band’s new album, the Crystal Skulls vocalist proclaims, “We’re gonna start all over.” The question is, are the Emperor Tomato Ketchup– y strains that announce Blocked Numbers’ opener, “Airport Motels,” worth cuing up again, let alone the rest of the album? That might depend on how much patience you have for spending the next 34 minutes asking yourself where you’ve heard these tunes before, because many of Numbers’ 10 tracks will seem remarkably familiar even the first time around. Or at least parts of them will: The staccato, organ-inflected verses of “Beat Me to It” display Wargo’s extensive knowledge of Spoon’s back catalog. The lazy groove of “Count Your Gold” sounds as if it had been orphaned by Pavement during the Crooked Rain Crooked Rain sessions. And guitarist Ryan Philips has obviously learned a lot from the Smiths, from the slashing riff that leads off “No Room for Change” (think “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”) to the darting lead lines of “Hard Party” (see “What Difference Does It Make?”). In other words, Numbers could easily come off as an exercise in indie necrophilia, the type of music that critics often dub “smart” pop—as if “dumb” were the genre’s default mode. But the Skulls bring a bit more than brains. The Seattle quartet truly owns these songs, no matter how many elements it incorporates from somebody else’s. This has much to do with Wargo’s confident, almost theatrical delivery, which makes lyrics such as “[t]he bleeding heart of the conversation/That began with ordinary words/Will redefine and verbalize/these awkward feelings” seem much less obtuse in performance than on paper. In that sense, “sharp” is a better descriptor for the pop contained on Numbers: Like the music of fellow Pacific Northwesterners Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, it’s got elbows. “No Room for Change,” for instance, derives most of its tension from the sound of guitar lines going in opposite directions while Yuuki Matthews’ driving, rubbery bass line splits the difference. And the swinging “Hussy” laces Matthews and drummer Casey Foubert’s loose groove with a bit of gangly, Verlaine-and-Lloyd-worthy interplay before breaking into a wholly unexpected outro that nods to Big Star’s Radio City. Smart? Nah, that’s just nervy. —Chris Hagan