London-based trio Male Bonding sure has been part of a whole lot of action since forming some four years ago. The band, who play the Constellation Room (inside the Galaxy) in Santa Ana tonight, began their career by creating sundry home-made cassettes and 7-inch split records, recording covers of GG Allin and Mission of Burma along the way.
In July 2009, the ever-august Sub Pop Records announced they had signed the act, making Male Bonding the first UK group to be inked to a worldwide deal on the label in a decade. Nothing Hurts, their debut LP, came out in May 2010, doing a killer job of introducing their effervescent yet conflicted indie rock to the world-at-large. The wonderfully ramshackle record was lo-fi at its most functional: None of the 13 songs crossed the three-minute mark, and the act still managed to lob out hook after hook. Their lyrics took another tack, tackling downer subjects like ennui, regret, and failure, allowing the album some depth.
Check out “Weird Feelings” and its quirky, retro-fied video for a good example of what Male Bonding does right:
The direction to deliver material in speedy fashion “wasn't a real conscious decision, it was just how things worked when we got into a rehearsal room together,” guitarist/vocalist John Arthur Webb told me in a September 2010 interview. “We were kind of new to writing songs. It was simple because that's kind of the only way we really knew how to do them. Also, I've got a really short attention span. I like short, punky, poppy songs that grab someone's attention.”
Now, after playing shows across the States and hustling so hard for the last two years, the group's responsible for a record with some dramatically different qualities. Endless Now, released in August on Sub Pop (listen to it streaming here), kicked those lo-fi production values to the curb. In its place comes a polished album produced by John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth) and laid down at Woodstock, NY's Dreamland–a studio where The B-52s, Joe Jackson, and Dinosaur Jr. have all recorded. Much of the earnestness of Nothing Hurts came from its genial grunginess–it was easy to imagine this band coming to play in your garage if you offered them a few beers–so hearing them making something so professional-sounding is startling.
But these developments aren't necessarily bad. Male Bonding do some of their character when everything's smoothed-out, but Endless Now does allow them an opportunity to bring their melodies to a new arena. Here, you really begin to appreciate the tightness of their songwriting. They come here as much more of a pop-punk than an indie rock one, which is another jarring change. (Perhaps it's a byproduct of hanging out with Rivers Cuomo.)
It's not hard to figure out why they've made these changes. Webb has been vocal about his distaste for the idea of having to stick to one school of production. “It would suck to just fucking knock out lo-fi albums once a year. We're happy to be shaking that off,” Webb told Pitchfork earlier this year. “It's an easy way to hide–a bunch of reverb and compression disguises a lot of things. It worked great for us on the first record but you have to try and explore the avenues that are open to you; we never could've paid to go into a studio before Sub Pop was involved.”
Overall, it's good to see that Male Bonding are moving up in the world, even if it's a bit of a bummer to realize that the scrappy, small group that recorded “Nothing Remains” and “Year's Not Long” isn't likely to make another scrappy, small album anytime soon. To quote Blink-182–a band who the Male Bonding on Endless Now bears a strange resemblance to–“I guess this is growing up.”
Male Bonding perform Friday at Constellation Room, 3503 S Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 714-957-0600, www.constellationroom.com. 8 p.m. $12. All ages.