The opening seconds of “Magazine,” the first song off Sløtface’s debut Try Not To Freak Out, are a bit of a feint. Behind a veil of feedback, a chorus of “woo-oo”s usher in a shambolic slice of mid-’90s alterna-pop, like early Modest Mouse covering a grunge anthem. It flattens out into a stately midtempo rhythm that’s matched by some declarative-sounding vocals from singer Haley Shea. But then she belts out, “Patti Smith would never put up with this shit,” the refrain lurches into a breakneck pop-punk refrain, and suddenly the entire song has been injected with a sugar rush. This is the true sound of Sløtface, and it’s a hyperactive thrill.
Sløtface is a Norwegian four-piece whose sound resembles a real-life Josie And The Pussycats, if the cartoon-punk group got heavily into politics, noisy guitars, and caffeine addiction. (And here we’re talking about the endearingly effusive soundtrack to the 2001 film—in part because Shea’s voice is reminiscent of Letters To Cleo’s Kay Hanley.) Every track on Try Not To Freak Out bursts with that same effervescent energy, wedded to lyrics that alternate between innocent expressions of childhood nostalgia and razor-sharp takedowns of contemporary soft boys (“I’ve filled my quota of boys with acoustic guitars / But more are born every year,” Shea sings on “Nancy Drew”). The ramshackle spirit keeps the sweetness from tipping over into cloying, while Shea’s rebel yell and rough-edged chord progressions cut it with a fiery kick.
When four chords and an attitude are your primary weapons, it’s the little things that can make or break that simple framework. Sløtface’s instrumentation continually keeps things from sounding trite, with the rhythm section of Halvard Skeie Wiencke and Lasse Lokøy locating pockets of space between the downbeats to add fluttering flourishes, as well as perfectly structured transitional fills. It doesn’t always work—the aforementioned “Nancy Drew” suffers from a bridge that features silly, Flea-style bass riffing—but it’s largely consistent. And guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad (congrats on that last name, by the way) has a knack for riffs and melodies that sound expansive and layered, as though he were two guitarists in one. With such solid backing, Shea’s vocals are free to get explosive and bold, pushing her unexpected lyrical couplets and lacerating wit right up to the edge of collapse.
The hooky high point comes with “Pools,” a song that uses the imagery of a summer swim outing as a warning about impulsive behavior. A cross between The Replacements and The Muffs—with just a hint of Craig Finn-esque lyrical detail—it’s one of the catchiest of the year. But equally engaging moments are littered throughout: “Galaxies” alternates dreamy guitar textures and Weezer-like melodies, while “Sun Bleached” starts quietly before erupting into a massive stomper with echoes of Veruca Salt. And “Night Guilt” offers a stuttering alterna-pop groove with intermittent bursts of distortion that doubles as a meditation on not being able to let go of all the little things you’ve done wrong. As a whole, Try Not To Freak Out is a joyful blast, a John Hughes soundtrack on steroids that never loses its sunny disposition.