You may have missed it in the wave of like-sounding garage rock records released around the same time, but Cheap Time’s full-length self-titled debut was a jagged, catchy little booger, a buzzing distillation of sneering, bubble-gum vocals, blown-out bass, and chintzy fuzz boxes. In short, it was a near-perfect pop-punk record, owing its considerable charm less to originality than to pure guts and pop vigor.
The band’s followup, Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations), doesn’t go out of its way to sound different from its predecessor. The hallmarks are still here: ratty bass distortion, impossibly pissy vocals, and snotty, sing-song melodies, but clearly something is different. The overall fidelity is cleaned up, sure, but it goes far deeper than that, with the band digging in deeper to influences less apparent on the debut. Classic Kinks riffs strut about, the drums phase in and out like classic Slade or Sweet, and the songs open up more subtle dynamics, keyboard orchestration, and even some — gasp — clean guitar tone.
For those paying attention during the downtime since the band’s last record, none of this will come as much of a surprise. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Jeffrey Novak’s solo singles displayed a sense of artistic restlessness, owing as much to Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers as The Buzzcocks. Novak didn’t abandon his energy in pursuit of melody, mind you; the tracks were still as noisy and clanging as anything from Cheap Time’s early singles.
On Fantastic Explanations, Novak goes several steps further: the chorus of “Throwing It All Away” sounds downright Beatles-esque; “Everyone Knows” swings like a glam-rock musical, the kind of crap Green Day wish they were pumping out; “Miss Apparent” boogie-rocks a dirge-tempo grind, with its shimmering call-and-response guitar lines, gigantic organ vamp, and Novak’s damning lyric, “Never mind the chairs and table/ That you bought were you were able.”
“Lazy Days” might be the track furthest removed from the band’s glitter-punk past — a rambling shuffle, the sort of thing contemporaries like The Strange Boys or The Fresh & Onlys do — and, frankly, do better — at least until the wah-wah guitars kick in and the band finds their footing. It isn’t the record’s finest moment, but it’s perhaps its most admirable. Blasting out another record like the first would probably have been easy, as each track on Fantastic Explanations is just as hooky and sticky-sweet as the debut, but Novak and co. clearly have their sights set higher, angling for that tough-to-reach intersection between big ideas and exuberant rock ’n’ roll.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the joyful bash of the band’s first record, but on Fantastic Explanations’ last track, “Waiting To Long,” they perfectly recall that smashed spirit, while marrying it to barroom piano, shucking percussion, and a multi-tracked vocal melody, all before tossing it onto the floor in a fit of overdrive and Mo Tucker drums. It’s a solid reminder that it’s tough to grow your rock up, but worth working toward, and Fantastic Explanations is a solid record demonstrating the results.