Local H Hey, Killer

[G&P; 2015]

Styles: rock, post-grunge
Others: Nirvana, Cheap Trick, Queens of the Stone Age, Scott Lucas and the Married Men

Before the internet, it was easier to pretend that we all existed in the world the same way. When our only windows into mass culture were movies, cable TV, radio, and something called a “newspaper,” a comfortably middle-class guy like me could get away with believing there was something universal about his experiences. But thanks in part to social media, the stentorian voice of the dominant culture is slowly being subsumed by a cacophony of dissenting viewpoints, perspectives, and worldviews. While the nascent potential of these cultural developments hold promise for new and exciting things in the future, here in the thick of transition, things can get pretty hairy.

In some oblique way, this appears to be the reality that Chicago duo Local H is grappling with on its eighth studio album, Hey Killer. The question it begs: are the forces that divide us stronger than the ones that can hold us together? Conflict is a major lyrical theme, and in various songs, we see black pitted against white, male against female, old against young, wed against unwed. The existing power structures refuse to yield without a fight, battle lines are being drawn, and like the titular figure from “Mansplainer,” we’ve come to mistake browbeating for communication. What, then, is the role of the 90s alt-boom veteran in this brave new world? Is there anything she can say that can cross the unbridgeable demographic gulfs laid bare by Twitter? On album opener “The Last Picture Show in Zion,” frontman Scott Lucas laments the closure of the movie theater in his hometown in northern Illinois, before concluding “A lack of fire and a lot of smoke/ Your white-boy blues is a fucking joke.” The prognosis is not optimistic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When we last checked in with the H, the group had just finished exploring the divisions in America in the realm of mainstream politics with their election-year epic Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. A lot of shit’s gone down since then. A tour of Eastern Europe came to an abrupt conclusion when Lucas was choked out during a mugging in Russia. The assault left him with vocal damage and unable to perform for months while he worked toward recovery. Additionally, long-time drummer Brian St. Claire hung up his sticks, to be replaced by Ryan Harding. No strangers to longish intervals between records, it would have been totally understandable if Lucas and Harding had taken their time and eased back into the serious business of rocking out, but three years later, here we are again with a fresh batch of songs.

In the press that Lucas has been doing for the album, he’s mentioned that many of the songs for Hey, Killer were written in a hurry, with Lucas committing to studio time before most of the tracks had been fully fleshed out. As a result, the album feels rawer and more primal than the records leading up to it. Hallelujah was Local H at their most ornate, with its expanded instrumentation, its dense thematic unity, its intricate web of sonic motifs and callbacks. Hey, Killer, by contrast, is more straightforward. Its relative simplicity is reflected in the lack of the conceptual underpinnings that have shaped the band’s previous records and also extends to many of the songs. But nothing here feels rushed. They feel refined, like Lucas set his compositions on a pallet, stuck them into a furnace, and let the fires burn away all the impurities and excrescence until all that was left was the solid mineral core… no, the very Platonic ideal of a Local H song. When Lucas is firing on all cylinders on this album (which he often is), the songs operate like exquisite clockwork, their interlocking parts winding fluidly into one another without a single motion wasted.

Lucas has always been a pro at crafting memorable, head-bangable riffs, but Hey Killer might boast more genuine earworms than any album they’ve released since the 1990s. “Freshly Fucked” is a magnificent case in point. An ode to that first blush of lust that accompanies a new relationship, the song can be seen as an earthy counterpoint to As Good as Dead’s anti-love song “Lovey Dovey.” For a band that doesn’t go blue very often, it’s a surprisingly frank celebration of sexuality and tighter than those jeans from college that you’re convinced you’ll wear again someday. Lucas moves from verse to chorus and back again with nary a moment’s hesitation. There’s the barest hint of a bridge, a final strafing run of a climax, and the whole damn thing is over before you know what hit you. The economy of the music is mirrored by an economy of language. Verses and choruses are short, and they often repurpose and reposition key words and phrases throughout. “Gig Bag Road” and “Mansplainer” are cut from a similar cloth, as ruthlessly efficient as they are catchy.

The more complex tracks aren’t as consistently rewarding but still frequently rise to the high-water mark set by these other tracks. “The Misanthrope” is an excellent reprise of a song they snuck out on last year’s Team EP. The six-minute “John The Baptist Blues” is a scorching psych freakout meant to showcase Harding’s skills behind the kit. In addition to supplying one of the more anthemic melodies on the album, “Age Group Champion” encapsulates some of the anxieties I alluded to before. The song centers around a pugilistic figure ravaged by time and by too many battles. He’s fading before our eyes, sinking into obsolescence, cheered on by a leather-tongued throng that perhaps see their own fate writ small in his. Coupled with the lines quoted earlier from the opening track, one wonders if Lucas’s brush with mortality did not spur him to begin taking stock of his legacy in this changing world.

But if he is that lonely fighter that he self-identifies with, it’s not totally clear whom he’s fighting against. It’s tempting to read into this song a narrative of “age-baiting”: the story of the noble, veteran boxer at war with a younger, shallower breed of contenders. But that narrative doesn’t really square with the rest of the band’s output. Far from being some cranky old man shaking his fists at kids to get off his lawn, Lucas has remained exceptionally open to successive developments in the world of pop music. One of the great pleasures of Hey Killer is the degree to which it tries to muddle some of those binaries that I sketched out before. The Chicago of “City of Knives” may be divided between a “city of white” and “city of black,” but they both have an “army of blue” to contend with. “Mansplaining” may have been coined to describe the way men talk down to women, but it’s Lucas himself who’s on the receiving end of this particular “master class in shutting up.” As a songwriter, he’s always reveled in the messiness inherent in the human condition: from the small-town burn-outs choking on his unrealized ambitions on As Good as Dead to the spurned lover flitting between petty spite and the desire for reconciliation on Twelve Angry Months. As long as Lucas keeps turning his attentions towards the glorious, maddening contradictions that are his fellow men and women, there will always be a place for him in my record collection.

Links: Local H - G&P

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