At any given show in Los Angeles, there are typically as many musicians in the crowd as onstage. It’s not so much that they’re recognizable for being familiar faces or for being popular, though there have been Morrissey spottings in the past. Rather, these individuals just look like they’re in bands, from the narrow frame, well-worn and tight jeans, dark sunglasses, tousled hair and arsenal of cigarettes. And for reasons beyond explanation, they’re almost always Thurston Moore tall. Yet, it’s just as likely that you’ll see plenty of other musicians whose identities are kept safe by their humble appearances. I know I wouldn’t recognize Earlimart, for instance, if I were to run into them. Hell, I probably have.
L.A.’s Midnight Movies have a similarly unassuming look, which isn’t to say they don’t have their own sense of style. To look at them, though, one wouldn’t immediately draw the conclusion that they’re musicians. Their sound, however, is another story altogether. Mixing psychedelia with jagged, punk guitars, synth-addled new wave with fuzzy, throbbing rock, Midnight Movies sound like their chain-smoking, tight-trousered contemporaries look. That’s a compliment, by the way.
The group’s sophomore album Lion the Girl is an expansion of the sound the group explored on their self-titled debut. Now a four-piece, Midnight Movies have developed a heavier, fuller sound, still dabbling in the atmospheric, pretty dream pop of before, while firing up the keyboards and distortion pedals and rocking a psychedelic buzz like Stereolab’s evil twin. Teasing the album with first single “Patient Eye,” the group revealed an ingenious amalgam of catchy, alt-rock textures and trippy, ambient pop, like Broadcast mashed up with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Its eerie keyboard drone, combined with Gena Olivier’s spectral Laetitia Sadier-meets-Chrissie Hynde voice, makes for some of the most haunting music out of the City of Angels in quite some time.
Within their dark and swirling world of rock noir, Midnight Movies runs a wide range, particularly in leadoff track “Souvenirs,” alone. Beginning with washes of feedback and buzzing farfisa spookiness, the song then propels into a three-chord punk rock raveup, chugging along like a sped-up version of “Are `Friends’ Electric?” before segueing into an ambient outro. “Hide Away” is a simpler, choppier rocker, reducing the number of chords to two, while “Ribbons” finds the band playing a Nico-like reverb jangle, pretty and elegant as it slowly dances from verse to verse.
Furiously-paced rockers like “Coral Den” seem to populate the most space on Lion the Girl, which is perfectly fine, given how irresistible their effects-laden hooks are. Even so, it’s the shimmering epic balladry of songs like “Bell Tower” that heighten the glamour and steal the show. Midnight Movies don’t drape themselves in the uniform of a rock band; their music is quite wonderfully dressed-up on its own.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.