No Age have always had great album covers. On the sleeve of the L.A. duo’s debut, Nouns, the band name pops out in stenciled 3D, a giddy and stylized non-announcement. It fits the music, which sounds like one long enfilade of shoegaze-punk guitar potshots that doesn’t quite drown out youthful pop hooks. That album’s follow-up, Everything in Between, advertises its title on a crumpled piece of paper, barely legible. The album is still a morass of noise, but with childlike zeal traded for detachment (even if we uncrumpled the paper, who’d read it?) Ironically, that attitude makes for a real creative evolution: songs both sparer and more sophisticated, more melancholy and more exciting. By that point, No Age wasn’t really a punk band anymore, if they ever had been.
Fourteen years after their debut, People Helping People, the sixth LP from the pairing of drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall, takes a similar tack with its cover art. It shows a dustpan with the remains of a shattered lightbulb. The image has a screen-printed look, realistic but removed. As with the discarded note on Everything in Between, it’s telling: old ideas are present, but they sound by turns smashed, cleaned-up and deconstructed.
Every No Age album has included a few celestial-ambient instrumentals: quieter passages, no longer than the other songs, reliable counterweights to deafening squalls and ragged repetition. People Helping People, though, is the first to start and end with one. Given that the balance of the record leans away from pure rockers, this feels fitting. Opener “You’re Cooked” shimmers and sears in the tradition of their best mood pieces. The second track and lead single, “Compact Flashes,” is a skeletal hand-clapper that finds lead vocalist Spunt on his Stephen Malkmus-circa-Slanted and Enchanted shit, while skittering drum feel-shifts sound like a record skipping behind him. “Plastic (You Want It)” is an even better nod to the yearning obscurantism of ’90s indie rock—a testament to Spunt and Randall’s abilities as pure songwriters apart from their sound-making.
People Helping People has plenty of the brazen experimentation that No Age so reliably deliver, but in a lighter and more stoic vein—as on the zenlike “Tripped Out Before Scott” and the aptly titled “Flutter Freer.” The instrumentals, especially, sound more assured than ever. Beyond its beautiful title, “Blueberry Barefoot” is a Rorschach test in synth-splattered technicolor; it wouldn’t sound totally out of place on a Brian Eno ambient album. For all their sonic escapades, the one “instrument” whose outer edges No Age have left to explore is voice. Dean’s singing builds a real mood and anchors the best songs, but he largely sticks to the indie rock script. At times you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t treat it with the kind of techno-artistic alchemy No Age reserves for all the other sounds in the painting.
This may come down to personal preference. After all, Spunt and Randall are so unflinching in their mission, so unconcerned with outside influence both conceptually and sonically, that it feels like they could just be getting started. While the formula hasn’t changed much on People Helping People, the density of great moments is higher than it’s been since their messy and glorious beginnings.
Label: Drag City
Casey is thinking about modern hip-hop and 70s rock. He’s written for Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Brainchild, Plaze Music and WTJU.