By Matt Marth
Someone is playing the kazoo on the last track of the new Grapetooth album. It’s not over the top, but it’s definitely there. Which doesn’t seem like it should work. But it does. It works very well as a matter of fact. Like the album as a whole, the use of kazoo on this highly buzzed about indie debut is wacky, inventive, and ultimately unique and organic. Grapetooth are playing by their own rules and seem to be having quite a lot of fun while doing it.
Clay Frankel and Chris Bailoni make up Chicago duo Grapetooth, whose eponymous debut album came out November 9th on Polyvinyl Records. Both dudes are already fairly established in the Chicago scene; Frankel plays guitar for garage-rock hooligans Twin Peaks, and Bailoni records under the name Home-Sick. The two have known each other since 2012, but only recently started making music together. Their ten track debut has the unbridled energy of a couple of pals dicking around on old keyboards at home, because that’s exactly how it came about. The two have described how they first started making music together in Bailoni’s home studio, sharing bottles of wine and bonding over their shared musical interests which include Arthur Russell, Japanese band Fishmans, and early eighties New Wave.
The pair’s affinity for eighties groups like New Order and Joy Division is clear from the moment the first sweeping synth comes in over a pulsing drum machine track on the opening cut “Violent.” These slightly off-kilter rhythms and drawn-out synths form the backbone of the album, both on raucous jams and more ambling, reflective tracks. The tight guitar playing and synth melodies of “Hangover Sq.” wouldn’t sound out of place on an early single from The Cure. But the use of synths is at its rowdiest and most interesting on the explosively fun lead single “Trouble.” Throughout the song Frankel only sings, or rather hollers, ten different words, but those ten words and the layers of synths behind them are as catchy as the most saccharine Top 40 hit.
Luckily, it seems Grapetooth appreciates eighties synths and drum machines simply because they sound cool, and the duo doesn’t limit themselves with ironic nostalgia or overwrought purism. The New Wave influence is definitely there, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of the ambitious inventiveness of the record. In between synth-heavy, shout-along tracks like “Blood” are twangy acoustic laments like “Mile After Mile” which are somehow more Johnny Cash than Depeche Mode. The two prove they aren’t afraid to slow down and reckon with loneliness, heartbreak and all of the other baggage of modern life. On “Red Wine” Frankel sorrowfully sings, “As I watch the screen glow, yeah, who’s she calling instead?” Throughout the album, the energetic synths and melancholy guitars spill into one another, creating a sort of kaleidoscope of tone and emotion.
What makes the record work as a whole is the effortless balance between the reflective bare-bones tracks and the rowdy, maximalist chorus-heavy jams. Grapetooth’s music makes it clear that sometimes life is tight as hell and sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s somewhere in between. With their debut record, Frankel and Bailoni aren’t trying to make any sort of grand statement about society or relationships or happiness. They’re just singing about their lives and doing it with sick ass eighties synths, captivating guitar playing, and yes, a kazoo.