Ever since releasing The Life and Times’ debut EP, The Flat End of The Earth, Allen Epley has been charting a course away from raw power and hooks toward a sound more prominently defined by ambience and sonic experimentation. His former band, Shiner, was essentially the best example of how raw, heavy and muscular a band could sound while retaining some semblance of mystique and pop accessibility. Listen to a song like “The Egg” for evidence of just how radically a song can shake your bones while threatening to haunt your dreams at the same time. But with Suburban Hymns and subsequently The Magician EP, The Life and Times drifted further into an intriguing sort of ethereality. There was a noisy rock band lurking somewhere within the gauze and the haze, just one that kept a relatively low profile.
The Life and Times still rock harder than most. Take in one of their live shows for evidence of this—the music mesmerizing, the tinnitus impending. With second album Tragic Boogie, however, Epley, bassist Eric Abert and drummer Chris Metcalf have arrived upon an aural mixture that finds the ratio of pure rock to effects-laden mood has been raised significantly. Furthermore, it’s a much catchier set of songs than Suburban Hymns, revealing that The Life and Times have had some truly brilliant hooks in them all along.
Tragic Boogie opens simply enough, with the majestic leadoff track “Que Sera Sera,” building upon echoing guitars, moving toward a climactic end with explosions of melody and delay-treated solos. There’s no chorus, no bridge, just a trail of mesmerizing verse progressing from beginning to end. The song fades into track two, “Fall of the Angry Clowns,” which has a sillier title than its somber, Blonde Redhead-like tone would suggest. The song opens up with a riff that recalls Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” but once the bass and drums explode through the delicate minor key licks, the song transforms into something beefier and more menacing. If anything, it most closely recalls late Shiner, which is never a bad thing.
When The Life and Times truly want to let loose and set their instruments ablaze, however, they don’t hold back. Standout “Let It Out” is one such track, absolutely awesome in its careening verses, yet hypnotic with its layered vocal “aaaahhhs.” “Dull Knives” has a similarly hard-hitting power, thanks to Metcalf’s sledgehammer kick and snare, but plays out as a subtler pop tune, opening with piano chords rather than guitars and following Epley’s vocal refrain cynically describing “fools in love.” After a delicate instrumental titled “Pain Don’t Hurt” (apparently they’re also fans of Road House), the band cranks it up again on “Confetti,” pistons firing, guitars cascading, drums pummeling. And it’s spectacular. Still, their excursion into druggy My Bloody Valentine-style washes of effects on “The Lucid Dream” isn’t too shabby either.
As Tragic Boogie arcs to a close, some of the abrasiveness wears off, opening the band up more to a soaring, epic art-rock approach on a song like “The Politics of Driving.” And in its final moments, the album fizzles into a nebulous loop of space-age effects, closing out one of the most engaging rock albums to be released in 2009. Up to this point, everything The Life and Times has released has been good, revealing flashes of brilliance every now and again. On Tragic Boogie, they’ve followed through on the promise of the sprawling, adventurous album that they’ve been building toward, and one that will rattle your bones, at that.
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.