New Politicians – Room 101

Room 101, more so than New Politicians’ other releases I’ve reviewed, seems far more shameless about how it exploits our pining for yesteryear – the guitars of “Disarmer” and “Newspeak” point straight at The Cure like the accusatory finger of a zealot.  The title track – with it’s mournful chord progression and heart-broken lullaby waltz – has ripped its essence and vibe from Muse at their lowest volume or Radiohead at their most wistful and lovesick.

Let me be clear: New Politicians are master songwriters; the presentational quality of their music on record is superb; and they can create a compelling arch – from song-to-song and overall – in the span of a 5-track EP.  Don’t mistake my targeting of their musical references and homages – and desire for belonging –  as being critical in the strictly “negative” sense – I just feel the need to be aware of it, and to share that awareness in my review.  It does eat into where they might score on originality, but not in a self-crippling way.

I fought myself over this review.  I wanted – perhaps needed – a shock to my system.  I needed a reason to come back and put pen to paper.  This record wasn’t what I was expecting, in that sense.  It did nothing to disband the sense of urgency I felt about examining a new record and exploring every skin cell and follicle. It did not satisfy my craving to immerse myself in a sonic environment I could spend years unraveling.  I learned to love this record on its own merits, not those I was searching for.

The problem is that Room 101, from beginning to end, is a deeply pleasant listening experience – not a visceral one.  Marginally sharper, more matured ideas flowing out from an increasingly capable band, fast becoming veterans in their own right.  The problem is that New Politicians demonstrate a reassuring and consistent competency in each facet of their music – lyrics, production, “moments” – they are not short of ear-worming hooks, either.  But there is no audible risk of failure.

At the time of this review, I have listened through Room 101 ten times – including a few times in my car.  I study the now-foreign streets of Seattle in the ripening end of Spring with suspicion and smugness.  Even in my crankiness, it’s a fantastic record for the road.  It rolls with you, not over you.  The harmonies are a joy to follow, especially the vocal layering on “Darkhorse.” The cynical, winding, Placebo-esque lyrical flow of “Pyromantic” situated against an appropriately heavy arrangement.

Beyond the faithful word-smithing of the record, the vocal delivery is similarly confident and familiar.  “Room 101” begins to take on a drunken, seasick chant that unravels the song with its profane refrain – welcome edginess.

Musically, everything is frustratingly as it should be: the drums sound exactly right – open, bright, and airy.  Even the filtered drum intro that emerges from the tuning of a radio dial at the head of “Newspeak” is impeccable in it’s quality, character, and sonic footprint.

The lead guitars, with an emphasis on their flawless, neon color and presence (for the first three songs) lend little to texture, saving that level of nuance for the processed lead vocal.  “Pyromantic” is a notable exception, placing the guitar work inside of a larger environment and at a greater distance, with a more distinct chance of a noise-wash threatening the melodic substance of the guitar’s sound in an exciting way.

“Room 101” itself requires the solemn acoustic guitar strum and clean, descending lead.  Everything, including the reverse guitars threading in and out of the bridges, is right where it ought to be.  Throughout, Room 101’s bass guitar holds down with a firm grip of timing and support – only getting a little extra room to shine in “Pyromantic.”

I hate guessing at the messages behind songs or the broader statements behind entire records – but the general sense I get is that lyrically – and in a backward sort of way, musically – Room 101 as a record intends to invoke a near-post-apocalyptic, melancholic reflectiveness on personal and societal carnage and decay.  Without reading too far into the lyrics, I glean particles of indignation, despair, isolation, and a touch of paranoia.  Surely, a sober reflection on this time in American history without the sickly, sticky-sweet mess of any overt politics.  A sanitary gloom.

Room 101 is as much a feeling as it is a record – strapped down tightly in some ways and freed up in others.  It’s a new record, to be sure, but not wildly dissimilar from New Politicians’ previous work.  Even so, I certainly find myself enjoying this record the more I listen to it, perhaps more than the others I’ve heard from them.  They remain largely unchanged in those most critical of ways… making for a lovely record, even if few risks were taken.

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