The hardest thing for a rock band, especially an indie rock band, is to shake off the label of “the next (fill in the band name here)”. This became an especially tough quandary after 2000, when a horde of bands had “the next Strokes” dropped on their heads and were unable to overcome that burden (including, ironically, The Strokes themselves). And, for a few years, Koufax found themselves stuck with that label as well, along with a host of other comparisons; the Cure, the Killers, and Radiohead, to name a few. This didn’t stop the group from receiving solid reviews and developing a following, but it had to be a little aggravating to hear those comparisons all the time, especially when the group’s piano-led indie rocking and occasionally harshly political lyrics revealed a desire to stand out from the normal indie fare.
With their latest effort, Strugglers, Koufax may finally have done the trick of shedding any comparisons and just standing out as a damn good indie-rock band. Opener “Any Moment Now” kicks things off with blaring saxophone, rolling drums, and singer Robert Suchan singing with the same quixotically laconic passion as Britt Daniel (now if more bands were “the next Spoon,” would anybody complain?). In fact, the remarkable unifying power of Spoon’s best work seems to be echoed in Strugglers, from the lightning-quick guitar licks and impassioned chorus of “Drivers” to the almost playful electric piano notes and classic rock harmonies of the title track. Album standout “Roll the Dice,” in particular, shows the band at its economical best: starting with a hypnotic organ drone and Suchan’s gentle vocals, everyone kicks in for the chorus (the strongest on the album, and that’s saying something) and the band builds momentum with squiggly guitar solos and powerful drumming before petering out into a charming little Vocoder tag. “Roll the Dice” confirms just how good this band can be; they play by the indie rules, but can get as anthemic as any band on FM radio.
The political element of Suchan’s lyrics, often subject to criticism in the past, has been toned down considerably throughout to the album’s benefit. Even when they do pop up, like the cringe-worthy “what we call thought they call a virus/ but never mind that” in the bouncy, snappy “What We Call Flats” or the won’t-get-fooled-again sentiments of “Once in a While,” the musicianship is strong enough to excuse any number of lyrical clunkers. “Once in a While,” in particular, starts with an insistent bass line (bassist Rob Pope is the group’s secret weapon, laying down thick and catchy lines all throughout) and builds to a jazzy brass rush and electric piano licks worthy of Koufax influence Steely Dan. “California Taught Us Well,” the final track, is a neat summation of the album as a whole: punchy and taut, veering close to bossanova, with another marvelous saxophone solo and sharp guitar work that would sound great on a spy-movie soundtrack.
Clocking in at a brisk 33 minutes, Strugglers feels a lot like an early 60s pop-rock album, both in its tight, poppy tunes and its lack of pretension or flash. This is an album that won’t knock you out of your seat, but is great for a drive on a sunny day or a stroll through the park, and nobody will ever be sick of those. Suchan and Co. set out to make an album with the primary goal to sound great, and they succeeded in spades.
Spoon – Kill the Moonlight
The Anniversary – Your Majesty
Hey Mercedes – Every Night Fire Works