Big Troubles: Playing on Prefix

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Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week:

Cloud Nothings, Smith Westerns, Times New Viking, and every other band that’ll fill the lower tiers of festival line-ups next summer have lured their listeners in with distortion before stripping it all away to reveal the “real” pop songs underneath.

Add Big Troubles to that camp, and give them a hearty pat on the back. Their debut, 2010’s “Worry”, was a metallic mess; it was a case of poor production values actually getting in the way of what could’ve been some pretty great melodies. With “Romantic Comedy” –out now via Slumberland, obviously–Big Troubles atone tenfold for their trend-hopping sins, producing ten almost blindingly crystalline tributes to the shocking resilience of late-80s/early-90s indie pop.

This is music that isn’t afraid to be what it is: backwards-looking, suburban, pleasant. If “Worry” was the kid wearing the choke collar to look cool, “Romantic Comedy” is that kid five years later: still concerned with standing out, but okay with wearing a nice sweater and slacks.

“Such little elegance in the perfumes of high culture” goes the first line of “Make it Worse”: They’re the disapproving outsiders, too sweet to do anything besides write indie pop songs about their problems.

So, no, this album is not courageously blazing a trail to Music’s Future, whatever that may entail. (Lots of dubstep, probably.) The boys of Big Troubles prefer to gaze fondly at the past–their own, and their label’s. And they’ve picked about a good a guide as they could to help them. The album was produced by Mitch Easter, who basically invented the suburban rock genre when he produced R.E.M.’s “Murmur”.

Co-songwriters Ian Craig and Alex Drennan don’t put much stock in Michael Stipe’s lyrical obfuscation, though. Their lyrics are straightforward, and take on contemporary indie rock’s favorite theme: boredom, and the desire not to be bored. “I just wanna have some fun” goes “Misery“‘s simple refrain, but the listener shouldn’t have any trouble doing exactly that: The song is lying on your couch and staring at the ceiling fan re-imagined as a slow-motion (and bass-heavy) epic.

Essentially, this is pop music about pop music. The fuzzy, headfirst rush into “Minor Keys” instantly brings to mind touring partners (and labelmates) the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who themselves call up a whole web of associations: Rocketship, C86, defiant wimpiness, cardigans. And that’s all before the song’s very first line: “Listen to the saddest songs, just to feel anything at all.”

Big Troubles have done a lot of listening, and instead of making a mix CD to prove it, they’ve crafted their own contribution to the canon.

— Daniel Kolitz