“WHO THE FUCK said my band sounds like pavement,” Cool American’s Nathan Tucker tweeted on July 11, “i’ll fight them.”
Fair enough. For two decades now, ’90s heroes Pavement have had an outsized influence on indie rock, with Stephen Malkmus’ prickly licks and pouty lines living on in seemingly every new guitar-pop group. Bands are understandably leery of the comparison.
Whether Tucker likes it or not, You Can Win a Few—Cool American’s new album on Portland label Good Cheer Records—does have its share of Pavement-y sounds. But here’s the interesting thing: It’s not necessarily Malkmus’ Pavement that courses through these songs, but Scott Kannberg’s.
Kannberg was Pavement’s guitarist and second songwriter, contributing a couple of tunes per album that provided an aesthetic break from Malkmus’ distinctive style. Kannberg’s songs—“Kennel District” from Wowee Zowee and “Date with IKEA” from Brighten the Corners, for example—tended to be airier and more unabashedly pop-focused, like slanted rays of sunshine in a landscape of smirks.
With song titles such as “Struggle for Motivation” and “Lonely Cigarette,” calling You Can Win a Few a ray of sunshine is probably overstating things. Lyrically, Tucker teeters on the line between quarter-life anxiety and wearily hopeful introspection.
But musically, bright spots abound. In “Playing Along,” a buoyant guitar line and Tucker’s roller-coaster vocal melody make a charming pair. “Solo Yolo” is a nifty little shape-shifter that shows off Cool American’s stylistic range. “Who’s Got the Next Cut?” picks up the pace, verging on sloppy, poppy punk rock, à la Superchunk. (Generally speaking, Tucker’s vocal tone recalls Mac McCaughan much more than those aforementioned guys from that “P” band.)
Cool American ably takes its foot off the gas, too. “Odds,” with its tumbling momentum and chiming string bends, sounds like a mellow early Modest Mouse rambler. The tastefully twangy guitar swoops of “Shake Off the Dust” and “Consumes Itself” could reasonably place Cool American alongside East Coast buzz bands Pinegrove and Big Thief in a trend story about young/new acts coloring their crunchy guitar-rock with the sounds of country music.
Of course, most bands don’t want to be tied to a trend or compared to an ancient forbearer, no matter how credible that forbearer may be. And that’s fine: Cool American has the goods to stand on its own. These songs are strong, the melodies memorable, and the arrangements show ambition and a sense of adventure. You Can Win a Few is terrific, top to bottom.