“Mild-mannered” gets a bad rap. Especially in rock music, where praise tends to go toward the wilder, the experimental, the more more more, it’s hard for a band to earn respect while being respectful. And not just aesthetically or attitude-wise, but musically; trafficking in sounds that don’t attempt to ruffle feathers, but rather smoothly satisfy, without getting too ambient or dreamy. “Pleasing,” might be the nice way of saying it; the mean way would be “easy listening.”
Which is silly, because even setting that ignoble genre aside, just like any other style, there are good and bad things that are easy to listen to. And Walkman, the third album from Minnesota’s Bad Bad Hats, is as easy on the ears as it is engaging to the mind—an album so full of hummable melodies and bouncy, pleasant rhythms, it feels more like a sunny afternoon drive, captured and transmogrified into recorded form.
It makes sense that Bad Bad Hats spent time on the road with The Beths during their last American tour. Much like that group’s breakthrough album, which at first glance sounds like fairly generic indie rock until the masterful songcraft reveals itself with closer inspection, Walkman’s simple beats and dapper melodies mask a sophisticated knack for pop arrangements—and a dark, wounded heart underneath it all, one far bleaker than the cheery music might otherwise suggest. This is best demonstrated by the quietly devastating centerpiece of the record: Buried right in the middle of all the smooth riffs and genteel pacing is “Priority,” a slow-paced number that sounds like Laura Marling fronting Crosby, Stills, & Nash. “When I walked into the kitchen, you were already dead / Just a glowing television, and the ghost of things unsaid.” If that doesn’t hit hard, then nothing does.
And that’s part of the point of making great music under the veneer of an unthreatening sound: It allows the band to Trojan Horse themes and emotions that slip past barriers precisely because they aren’t expected. When you drop the needle on Kid A, you’re mentally prepped for a psychologically taxing journey, right from the opening buzz of the synth. But Bad Bad Hats waft in like an autumnal breeze, cozy and relaxing even when dropping arguably angular riffs on tracks like “Milky Way” or the chugging pulse of “Detroit Basketball,” the hardest-edged song on the record that still sounds, at its toughest, like Wilco jamming on a Chuck Berry number. The pathos hits all the harder for slipping under the skin like an IV drip.
Plus, it’s important to note just how far singer Kerry Alexander has come, not just as a lyricist, but as a vocalist. Yes, the deliberate affectations and rich “h” additions are all there, with yeses becoming “yesh”es and chasing shifting to “chashing,” but they’re deployed with an artful ear for how a turn of phrase reverberates against the music. She sounds like a seasoned jazz ace who’s stumbled in front of an indie-pop band and decided to hang around for awhile. The vocals just contribute to the overall sense of a trio of expert musicians playing coy with what they’re capable of, the better to surprise you in the middle of a collection of pleasing pop-rock nuggets.