The Lampshades, a trio of Pittsburgh-by-way-of-Altoona ne’er-do-wells, is nothing if not ambitious.
It hasn’t always entirely been this way. Sunshine, its 2005 debut, was more of a catalog of by-the-numbers power-pop than the loose-limbed junk-rock these guys have perfected on records like Arena Punk and Numbskull Nothinghead. Even after a good number of outings, though — this is the band’s fifth full-length platter — the template for a Lampshades song is no easy thing to map; frontman Jaren Love’s frequently detuned guitar sits at odds not only with his sometimes-plaintive/sometimes-monochromatic voice, but also the trio’s finely tuned, if unusual, rhythm section. (Drummer Dane Adelman and bassist Chris Kibler are no slouches.) And things are prone to falling apart, with the best songs dropping into wonderful tangents, stitched-together segues, and unexpected seams.
Now, listeners have Astrology — the group’s new record, out this Friday on Mint 400 Records — and the thing is EPIC, all caps intended. On songs like ”Astrology II,” the second part of a four-part suite, these guys show an uncanny knack for composition that betrays its roots as ”just” a punk-rock band. The phrase ”civilization and its discontents” first appeared on a Lampshades song three years ago (the catchy single/EP selection ”Gotta Do”) but, on the titular song here on Astrology, which premiered exclusively on Popdose, the band reaches for the stars, combining jagged punk explosions with cooed backing harmonies and wonderfully atypical rock phrasings.
In one corner of the record, on ”Stories And Idiosyncrasies,” they sound sludgy until the introduction of a gluey piano descent. In another, they flirt with quiet/loud/quiet dynamics better than anyone since — what? — Weezer, but somehow make even the most simple departures feel not just mindful or intentional, but grandiose. (I haven’t heard someone do it this well since A Minus Story’s incredible The Captain Is Dead, Let The Drum Corpse Dance.) Lampshades’ ballads (”Feel Alright,” the classical-guitar feel of ”Always On”) feel beautifully awkward, and some songs (say, the awesome closer, ”Feel Okay”) echo Pet Sounds on benzodiazepine. (Well, more benzodiazepine.)
The Pet Sounds name-drop is apt, as these guys are clearly schooled in the ways of pop and hooks. Their melodies on songs like ”Civilization And Its Discontents” or ”Feel Okay” are often pitch-perfect. Their more somber platitudes — look no further than the atonal-surf guitar, Elephant 6 vocals, and carefully placed synth washes of opener ”Hope On A Rope” — still hit the nail square on the head. The Lampshades comment on the inherently biodegradable nature of pop plastic while they mimic it through bizarre filters. It’s an adventurous, enthralling listen, quite possibly up there with the best Pittsburgh might offer in the first half of the year. You owe it to your ears to check it out.