Guitars aren’t going away anytime soon, but for some reason, we always think they are. Maybe there’s something sacramental about The Riff, which always seems to be in limited supply.Emo and metal are fully operative, punk is always seemingly on its last legs, and classic rock only seems to reign one revivalist at a time: The 2000s had Jack White, the early 2010s the Black Keys, and Alabama Shakes will likely hold us over till 2020. All together, this is a formidable bunch of existing paths. So why does it always feel like something’s missing?
Depending on where your allegiances lie, you may be a sufferer of Replacements/Nirvana withdrawal, bands whom many people rightfully believe cracked the code, fingered the immaculate balance between noise and melody. Unlike those eventual major-label signees though, there’s no chance of this holy grail leading to a hit anymore. Many artists currently working the right power chords are women: the Cheap Trick revivalists in Ex Hex, the re-energized Sleater-Kinney. There’s also Wussy, the gender-split standard-bearers of tuneful noise, though their world-class lyricism keeps them from being quite… Paleolithic enough for punkish distinction. And by managing Arcade Fire, Spoon, etc. firsthand, the label owners in Superchunk have improved their own songwriting tenfold since their supposed ‘90s heyday. But no one in any of these bands is under 30.
Fans of any of the above-named will hear the lord in all-male exceptions Tenement, who, eight years in, have now been around long enough to release a Volume Two of something, and frequently sound like they’re circling the wagons on a great album without quite getting there. Last year’s put-up-or-shut-up double LP Predatory Highlights actually did have a great album inside of its 78 minutes, but telling the merely good tracks of the 25 apart from the transcendent ones proved to be more work than necessary. (Hint: Delete the nine-minute crapstrumental.)
“Perfection is boring, everyone knows that by now,” claims lead stickler Amos Pitsch, who won’t disclose whether or not he plays everything on the Wisconsin trio’s records. He actually reads his reviews; called bulls**t on Pitchfork naming that nine-minute non-jam a “jazz odyssey,” and is principled in that punk way that finishes Tenement live sets in a blaze of smashed-amp glory before the 20-minute mark. That doesn’t make him an editor though, and that’s all the more reason to pay attention to every one of this band’s releases, especially the 34-minute singles compilation Bruised Music, Vol. 2, if only for having seven tracks under two minutes (an eighth is just over). We might have to compile perfection ourselves.
Bruised Music, Vol. 2 is supposedly pop-punk, but if Tenement sound like Green Day, think the Green Day of 1995’s Insomniac: formula fraying at the seams, the sound of a band who almost exclusively works in power chords looking for a way to incorporate strings. But their ringing crunch has more in common with Bob Mould, who’s almost as inconsistent and prolific. This is meat-and-potatoes rock with all meat — even the slow songs have that lo-fi-equivalent-of-brickwalled feel. Vol. 2 starts out more promising than Predatory Headlights, but sometime after the unsettled harmonies and piano plinks of “Perverse Universe” give way to the Tortoise-like interlude “Jet Slug,” the repetition becomes inconsequential; just bask in the roil. You’ll notice the Stereolab-chugga of “Books on Hell and Sermons on TV” that can’t help but sound like “Waitress in the Sky” performed by worker robots, but the rest glaze over. Every one of them has the same overall effect — Foo Fighters fronted by the Less Than Jake guy. But what might’ve been a 1996 annoyance is a refreshing 180 for 2016 indie.
Their best songs can be totally random, such as Vol. 2’s sole epic “Wouldn’t Let You Go” which features Pitsch yelping like Ted Leo, or the power-pop toothpick “The Block Is Safe Again,” which is over quicker than a piece of hard candy. Those are respectively the longest and shortest things here, which bodes well for the band’s explorations. For all their tunes blurring together, Tenement have a signature trick that features heavily in their catalog: jamming the brakes on a song’s hook section with the “wrong” chord or three. It makes the songs harder to hum and distinctly their own at the same time (there’s a full carillon of them halfway through 2015’s “The Shriveled Finger”). So a singular band s**tting out smart records at a tour-warrior’s pace isn’t actually solving a rockist’s problem, but their body of work is pretty captivating for a flawed one. Maybe when Tenement gets bored of doing things on their own terms, they’ll try their hand at perfection.