Girlpool, PWR BTTM, Todd Rundgren, and more in this week’s music reviews

Girlpool (Photo: Molly Matalon)
Girlpool (Photo: Molly Matalon)

PWR BTTM lobs a sonic glitter bomb on the life-affirming Pageant

Grade: A-

[Polyvinyl]

[Note: Yesterday, PWR BTTM responded to recent allegations of sexual assault against member Ben Hopkins. This review of the band’s new album was filed in advance of that, and does not address this controversy.—ed.]

As its members do in their lives, PWR BTTM’s Pageant rejects rigid categories in music. The queercore duo, composed of co-bandleaders Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, writes fuzzy, anthemic, guitar-driven songs overflowing with punk energy and catchy pop hooks. But the “pop-punk” label doesn’t quite capture the earnest vulnerability that’s another hallmark of their songwriting—not to mention Hopkins’ finger tapping on album opener “Silly.” On its sophomore album, PWR BTTM further expands its sound, incorporating horns, strings, acoustic guitars, and additional vocals for a record that recalls some of the best indie rock of the past 15 years.

There’s a hint of Broken Social Scene in the off-kilter rhythms of “Now Now” and the soar and crash of “LOL” or “Big Beautiful Day,” while their eccentric melodies and skittish energy also recall late, lamented mid-’00s band The Unicorns. “Answer My Text,” a shout-along “fuck you” to guys who don’t text back—and featuring the clever line, “Maybe your heart’s on silent mode tonight”—similarly has all the makings of a college-radio hit. But for every big chorus and witty turn of phrase, there’s also a deeply felt lyric like, “Who would I be if they had never taken my body? / Drawn a blue box around it and put a toy gun in my hand?” from the defiant “Sissy,” or “What kind of pageant is this? / Why have I been acting like this?” from the poignant title track. No amount of perma-teenage angst can dim PWR BTTM’s light, and by owning the hard work it takes to love yourself and others, particularly as a queer person, they celebrate the beauty and value of our lives.

Purchase Pageant here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Buzzy duo Girlpool does the unthinkable by adding the most common instrument in rock

Grade: B-

[Anti-]

The decision to eschew one of indie rock’s most important components—drums—helped both define and limit Girlpool. The L.A.-bred duo, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, found blog-world success by keeping it super simple, letting their voices and guitars convey their heart-on-sleeve sentiment. At times it felt like a gimmick, other times it felt like a statement: This is all we need.

Their second album might piss off purists: “123” starts the album innocently beat-free, but less than a minute in comes the roll of a snare and crash of a cymbal. Luckily it’s in service of the band’s catchiest song yet, and it’s only served by the introduction of percussive dynamics. It might sound crazy to the band’s most ardent early supporters, but adding drums to the duo’s sweetly innocent songs is absolutely illuminating. (And they’re even hedging by not officially adding a drummer to the band, just bringing one on for the purposes of recording and touring.)

The rest of Powerplant’s brief 29-minute running time can’t quite live up to “123,” though it has plenty of powerful moments. Where Girlpool’s first album and EP felt like an extension of the shambolic Pacific Northwest sounds of the ’90s—Beat Happening and Moldy Peaches come to mind—“Sleepless” recalls early Death Cab For Cutie, with minor-key guitars noodling around hyper-specific, hyper-downcast lyrics. (“Holding a glass jar of change / with white tape and my last name.”)

The affectless singing and goth-lite vibes of the album’s midsection don’t do it many favors, though: Things start to bleed into one another not long after the jaunty “Corner Store.” They’re not bad by any stretch, but after painting outside the lines for a few songs, Girlpool jumps right back into the path of least resistance. They pull out some renewed energy before closing up shop with “Static Somewhere,” the record’s longest song at nearly four minutes, and one that closes with some unabashed bashing. It ends at it began, with the newfound freedom that comes from a steady beat.

Purchase Powerplant here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Todd Rundgren gets stuck in the ’80s with some famous friends

Grade: C

[Cleopatra]

The press release for Todd Rundgren’s new White Knight boasts that it spans “generations and genres,” but it actually wallows in one area in particular: the synthesized concoctions of the 1980s. This doesn’t seem like an area that needs revisiting after so many endless remakes. Though to Rundgren’s credit, his disparate 25th studio album doesn’t sound like a lot of those other rehashes, chiefly because it so closely resembles something that might have been released circa 1983.

As is so often the case, Rundgren focuses on the music over memorable lyrics; the refrain of “Fiction,”’ for example, is just “This fiction,” repeated over and over again. The good news is that his excellent production skills are still in play, so that a torchy ballad like “The Beginning Of The End,” featuring vocals by John Boutté, can transport the listener to the demise of a relationship almost purely by dint of its sad, smoky atmospheres. It’s also lifted with a little help from Rundgren’s friends: “Tinfoil Hat,” a pointed (if cheesy) attack on Donald Trump, welcomes Donald Fagan, who makes it into a convincing facsimile of a political Steely Dan song. Elsewhere, the soundtrack composing team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross chime in on “Deaf Ears,” adding welcome layers of spooky synths. The XTC-esque “Sleep” shows a surprising softer side of guitarist Joe Walsh, while Robyn raises “It Could Have Been Me” to her typically sublime level. Still, not even Daryl Hall himself can wring much out of the tepid disco of “Chance For Us;” “Look At Me” with Michael Holman sounds like a weird combination of a battle rap and someone doing a sound check; and “Buy My T” bizarrely takes aim at the makers of overpriced T-shirts and hoodies.

And so it goes, careening haphazardly from guest star to guest star, weird subject to subject, and synth line to synth line. By the time a guitar finally reappears on “Wouldn’t You Like To Know,” featuring Rundgren’s son Rebop, the listener clings to it gratefully, and then is rewarded by the ferocity of Joe Satriani’s usual blitzkrieg on final track “This Is Not A Drill.” Mostly, White Knight sounds like an album that was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to listen to.

Purchase White Knight here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Logic is at peace with himself on Everybody, for better and worse

Grade: C

[Def Jam]

Toward the end of Everybody, Logic’s third maddeningly okay record, the Gaithersburg, Maryland-born MC declares that his next record will be his last. This means that, at this point, we can stop talking about the rapper’s potential and more about it as a closed loop—which is sort of a shame, because he’s always seemed just a few steps away from being something special. Instead, we have a trio of records defined by his penchant for knotty, over-wrought concepts—science fiction is often involved—and the MC’s double-time rappity-rap flow, which can come across sometimes like a poor man’s Kendrick Lamar and at other times like a rich man’s Lupe Fiasco.

That’s not a bad spectrum, in terms of pure technical MCing, and that’s what makes all Logic records, Everybody included, so frustrating: The dude can rap his face off, typically over insanely plush orchestral scores and nimble, rounded drums. At his best, like on the bright “Black SpiderMan” or “Everybody,” he’s able to speak with rapid-fire eloquence about the experience of growing up biracial, identifying black but passing white, even though he’d prefer to be defined by his effortless flow, or the fact that he can maintain that flow while solving a Rubik’s Cube. Seriously, the guy will not stop solving Rubik’s Cubes while rapping.

This conglomeration of skills has been enough to net the rapper two gold records on Def Jam without ever having an outright hit, which is a strange claim to fame for a rapper, but one he accepts amiably. “Amiable” is sort of the operant word for Everybody, which, like Joey Badass’ All-Amerikkan Bada$$, strives to create a trenchant pop-rap polemic for the Trump era, but unlike that record—or any other record ever, for that matter—frequently gets lost in minutes-long spoken-word segues in which Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaks as a benevolent god about the nature of self-worth. That stuff is about as bad as a thing in our vast cosmos can be. The record’s final act descends into maudlin treacle; the swooning “Anziety” concludes with several minutes of Logic describing the experience of having a panic attack and concluding with some chest-thumping self-affirmations. It is not exactly what you’d expect from a rap record, but Logic delights in this contradiction, performatively happy with who he is. If he’s got one record left, that’s probably not changing.

Purchase Everybody here, which helps support The A.V. Club.