‘Artisanal Grunge’ feels necessary on ‘The Courtneys II’
Adam Ramos | Thursday, March 2, 2017
A quick examination of The Courtneys’ facebook page is worth the trip. Vaporwave videos, puppy pics and even a quiz game titled “Which COURTNEY Are You” populate their wall (it’s 17 questions long — I am a “Sydney”). Further probing into the New Zealand via Vancouver sweet punk outfit’s page and you may discover the band’s “interests,” namely, activities at YMCA, cheese ramen and “cruising.” Ultimately though, it is the group’s personal description that proves most intriguing: “a special blend of fuzzy artisanal grunge.” The portrayal, while aptly playful, is telling. On their latest album, “The Courtneys II,” The Courtneys find pleasantry in grunge via harmony and wit, a successful experiment from a promising voice in the genre.
To be fair, the notion of “artisanal grunge” is oxymoronic, quick to conjure images of Jeff Albini cringing in some dingy Chicago garage or Kurt Cobain rolling in his grave. Yet, grunge, or more generally post-punk, has come a long way as a genre. As artists across the map continue to morph and play with grunge’s traditional DIY sound, introspective ethos and distorted yet intricate instrumentation, it seems that “artisanal grunge” doesn’t feel so far off. While the grunge genre in name may no longer exist, more recently emerging genres like sludge-punk and even emo continue to bear the grunge spirit — a spirit very much alive in “The Courtneys II.”
For the Courtneys, grunge means a heap of distortion without sacrificing pop, most evident in album standout “Minnesota.” Sweetly dissonant, the 3:40 long track works so well between the thumping percussion, distorted layered guitar and tender vocals that even the guitar solo feels necessary. Many of the tracks on the album feature similar structures, and while this may mean that, at times, the album can feel a tad vapid, the strength of the individual performances and the collective chemistry manages to command attention almost all the way through.
Vocal harmonies throughout the album evoke shoegaze’s sweet saccharine pulse and juxtapose nicely with some of the grittier guitar riffs and basslines — a dynamic sound recalling that of ’90s outfits The Sundays, Lush and even the more abrasive Veruca Salt. In general, the vocals are the strength of the album, particularly those of lead Jen Twynn Payne. Inventive singing methods, like the undulating vocal pitch shifts on track “Tour,” help give the less complicated guitar hooks and percussion a bit more body.
What’s being sung is also of note. The Courtneys have a special gift at making the trite feel poignant. While much of the lyrical content deals with traditional themes like relationships, break-ups, saying goodbye, feeling out of place and vampires, Twynn Payne’s emotional prowess and story-telling abilities allow her to create a more nuanced, not to mention relatable, listening experience — think The Shangri-Las. On “Iron Deficiency,” a blood disorder is a conduit for exploring the perils of life as a confused 20-year-old. “And nothing you say or nothing you do could stop me from thinking about you, it doesn’t matter if it’s right, you’re just the one I like,” Payne sings in the chorus on album opener “Silver Velvet,” a simple but nonetheless profound comment on the power of romance’s persuasion.
While I already semi-justified the notion of “artisanal grunge,” it goes without saying there is an element of humor to The Courtneys self-description. Humor like how the band dedicates almost 7 minutes to explaining why someone who “looks just like they did in 1986” should be considered a “Vampire Teenage Boyfriend.” Sure, it is playful, and maybe a bit unnecessary, but the humorous realism constantly looming is a refreshing component of the album. Then again, I’m just a Sydney — what do I know about humor?
Artist: The Courtneys
Album: “The Courtneys II”
Label: Flying Nun Records
Favorite Tracks: “Silver Velvet,” “Minnesota,” “Iron Deficiency”
If You Like: Hinds, Hole, Tame Impala