If any job prepares you to write and perform pop music well, it’s writing about it. From Patti Smith to Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, there’s a history of critics stepping into the role of performer and killing it, combining their writing talent with their love and knowledge of music. If you’re a music journalist and you have a sense of rhythm—the latter disqualifies me—you should consider getting on stage.
Though you may not have heard of them, Washington D.C.’s The Paranoid Style are the finest recent example of a band fronted by rock critics. Formed by singer Elizabeth Nelson and guitarist Timothy Bracy—music writers as well as former lobbyists—the band’s records combine Nelson’s sardonic vocals with delicate power pop melodies and a traditional (though too good to be typical) garage rock sound. In particular, their EP from last year, Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall, was the year’s most underappreciated record, a funny, addicting and yet ominous five songs that, strange as it may seem, fit right below To Pimp a Butterfly on my top 10—desperate times call for desperate music.
The band’s next step was to sign to Bar/None Records for their first LP, an impressive feat for a band that had mostly gone unnoticed outside of a small fanbase. Their first full-length, Rolling Disclosure is even more tuneful than the EPs and just as consistent—of ten songs, there are no duds. If there’s one downside, it’s that the manic energy heard on Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall is less apparent here. For the most part, they travel from song to song with ease, resulting in a record that’s less apocalyptic in tone, though not tune.
As rewarding to decipher as good hip-hop, Nelson’s lyricism is as strong as ever. Her love of pop culture shows on “Cathedral Lows,” in which she rhymes a television reference (“The velveteen touch of a dandy fop,” a line that should give any Mr. Show fan a chuckle) with a Television reference (“Richard said, ‘Hey, let’s dress up like cops’”), a moment on par with the Elvis Costello reference in “Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall”: “So you can fuck on water/That don’t make you a miracle man.” But like Costello, her aim is true. A line like “You’re just part of some device” showcases her political perspective, which is seen throughout Rolling Disclosure—the album was described as being about, “waking up and facing the sort of spiritual and emotional rot of late period capitalism.” Meanwhile, “I’ll fuck anything that doesn’t fuck me first” is worth a dark laugh.
Sure, the band is cynical—in 2016, why aren’t you? In less than two minutes, the punky “Giving Up Early (On Tomorrow)” tells you as much as an hour of watching the news. But the music gives you hope even as the words encourage you to give it up, which is the power of rock and roll. Contradictions can be as honest as consistencies.
Elsewhere, they load their songs with little hooks and sonic touches worthy of Nuggets. The backing vocals on opening cut “The Ambassador’s Morning Lift,” the “Uh huh”’s on “Common Emergencies” and the organ on the Wreckless Eric cover that closes the album (“Duvet Fever”) are all remarkable. But the biggest achievement may be “The Thrill is Back!,” which features one of the best choruses of the year alongside lines like, “So what came first/The hen party or the hen?” and “Who among us doesn’t like a public shaming?”
“I remember when rock was old,” Nelson sings on “Certain Lists,” resisting blind nostalgia. But if a band is going to take a stand against romanticizing the past, the least they can do is give us a future worth replacing it with. Rolling Disclosure is a future I can get behind, even if that future is broken.