I had the good fortune of catching You Won’t open for Alcoholic Faith Mission when they played Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago. Despite their “supporting act” status, it was pretty clear that a fair number of the people crammed into the bar’s backroom were there specifically for them, and whenever there was a break in the music, an acquaintance of the band sitting a few feet from me would yell out a request for “Three Car Garage.” In retrospect, I couldn’t really blame her. The song is an obvious standout, even amid the largesse of the Massachusetts duo’s debut, Skeptic Goodbye.
The song opens with a cacophonous sample of a dollar-store toy raygun paired with a child’s earnest, tuneless song, which, as it turns out, is a garage recording of singer Josh Arnoudse himself from 1995. Against this snapshot of innocence and a particularly buoyant melody is set the brooding discontent of the song’s lyrics. “I’ve been brought up clean and organized/ I’ve been each December satisfied/ I’ve had wishes granted, none denied/ I’ve been flown down south and Disneyfied,” Arnoudse proclaims in a litany of middle-class privilege. It’s the American dream, the future that we of this great nation toil and labor in order to secure for our 2.5 children, but it very quickly takes a sour turn: “I sailed twenty seas of deep denial/ On a million frequent flier miles/ Ran a gauntlet built of grocery aisles/ And a walking wall of guilt and bile.” There is an undeniable nostalgia at play here, but a nostalgia for a “clever imitation mined from photographs and DVDs,” or, more simply, “a delusion.” It’s a sentiment bound to resonate with late-twenty-/early-thirty-somethings still struggling to come to terms with the passage of childhood, one that lays bare the empty seduction of the past.
If all this suburban ennui potentially leaves You Won’t open to being written off with a snide “#whitepeopleproblems,” the level of artistry at play here is too great for such an easy dismissal. For one thing, Arnoudse’s lyrics are a pure joy. The album has an emotional directness, a no-bullshit, heart-on-sleeve honesty that sidesteps the pitfall of solipsism by couching its intensely personal musings in arresting imagery and playful linguistic turns. The finest specimens unfurl lasciviously tangled strings of syllables that twin effortlessly with the duo’s simple, finely crafted pop melodies. There’s a density to songs like “Three Car Garage” that feels almost out of place among the glib landscape of contemporary indie rock and pop.
On the musical side of things, the multi-talented Raky Sastri proves to be more than Arnoudse’s match. In addition to the drums and various other improvised percussive instruments, he provides some of the album’s more exotic flourishes, including an accordion, a harmonium, a mountain dulcimer, and even the saw blade that lends its ghostly warble to the somber “Old Idea.” It’s hard to hear a singing saw on an indie rock album and not think of Neutral Milk Hotel’s swan song/magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s a comparison that Arnoudse courts on a couple of levels, from his occasional flights of lyrical fancy (“Now you’re singing in the subway/ Spilling onions from your mouth” he dictates on “Old Idea,” making it the NMHiest of all the songs on the record), to the raw nerve weariness of his delivery on the title track. Miraculously, You Won’t are able to stand in the light of one of indie rock’s greatest masterpieces without being reduced to ash: Skeptic Goodbye is much less a mimicry of Aeroplane’s stylistic quirks than an attempt to capture some of its devastating honesty.
Skeptic Goodbye is a truly remarkable first outing and the first album of its kind to lodge itself so deeply in my chest in quite some time. It’s a refreshing reminder of why indie rock is still a phenomenon worthy of our exploration and attention. With just a couple guitars, a drum kit, some odd folk instrumentation, and a few ideas worth repeating, two guys can make a modest pop record that speaks to something truly human.