Review Summary: Not your daddy’s yacht rock.
Many of my favorite albums are the type that may not show all their tricks at first but rather settle their hooks in gradually, revealing layer upon layer over the course of repeated listens. Then there are albums like Boat Songs
, which grab me immediately and never let go. My first listen to this thing, it brightened my mood right away and left a stupid grin on my face for the entirety of its 34-minute duration, and that reaction has changed little since.
, the third widely-available and first proper studio album from MJ Lenderman, perhaps better known as a guitarist in shoegaze band Wednesday, takes bits from the songwriter’s many great influences (Sparklehorse, Jason Molina, David Berman, etc.) and distills them into something all his own. Working mostly in the realm of alt-country, Lenderman fuses in aspects of ‘90s slacker rock and slowcore with the ethos of garage rock and hints of shoegaze/noise pop to create a set of 10 gripping and fun tunes. Where many of his stylistic influences (and indeed much of Lenderman’s prior work too) aren’t exactly known for being upbeat, the album’s press release describes it as Lenderman’s attempt to “chase fulfillment and happiness,” which can be seen clearly from the goofy cover art and the chunky power pop riffs that drive opener “Hangover Game.” While there are choice moments of melancholy in classic alt-country fashion, they are well balanced by these more positive moments, resulting in an album that one could easily imagine playing from a tinny radio on a boat, which may only amplify the album’s slacker charm. All but the last song come and go quickly in under 4 minutes and are stacked with hooks and details that will keep you coming back for more.
What shines most here is Lenderman’s keen songwriting and delicious guitar work, which shine through most on the album’s highlights. “TLC Cagematch” has got to be the best and most emotionally gripping song about pro-wrestling since The Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ
, gorgeous steel guitar and acoustics grounding Lenderman’s observations about his discomfort watching the participants get thrown around, culminating in his conclusion: “I know why we get so fu
cked up.” The following “Toontown” is similarly gripping, a more slowcore-influenced track serving as the backdrop to Lenderman’s extended metaphor about trying (and failing) to achieve happiness, thrilling bursts of noise in the latter half bringing the already intense song to another level. Later on in the album, after a set of shorter tracks that keep the energy going, come the album’s closing one-two punch, the intense “Tastes Just Like It Costs” reveling in its glorious Crazy Horse style riffs and the downbeat “Six Flags” acting as a comedown for the whole experience with its bruised, dissonant chords. While these four tracks shine the brightest, other gems are scattered throughout the brief runtime, the uber-lo-fi “Dan Marino” being the only thing resembling filler, and even that serves to add to the album’s ramshackle charm.
Ultimately, Boat Songs
is a more than worthwhile listen for anybody remotely interested in alt-country and 90s indie singer/songwriters and confirms Lenderman as a beast of an artist in his own right. I could say more, but sometimes it’s better to let the music speak for itself. So I’ll leave it with this, an exhortation saved only for some of the best stuff: Play it loud, folks.