Review Summary: Pop philosophy has never tasted so delectable.
12 Rods’ 2002 swan song Lost Time
, though not their best album, is the 12 Rods release that most nicely refracts, prism-like, the collective taste of 2020s Internet culture, swirling together strands of emo, shoegaze, and power pop with an unremitting intensity and loudness that seems perfectly pitched for maximum individual sonic absorption. Indeed--I'm already grinning at the thought of introducing this album to a swath of unfamiliar prospective cheerleaders.
Seemingly discouraged by the rocky reception of 2000’s underrated Separation Anxieties
and their own disillusioning experience with star producer Todd Rundgren (quoth 12 Rods frontman Ryan Olcott: “He was the last person to show up at each session and the first one to leave."), the band shows no signs of wear or tear on Lost Time
, which bursts just as vigorously with melodic ideas as did the quasi-canonical gay?
EP and Split Personalities
LP. In fact, Lost Time
’s production strategy–nearly bitcrushed by sheer volume where Separation Anxieties
floated in the synthy ether–seems consciously shaped toward allowing Olcott’s acerbic words and bubbly hooks their well-deserved Pollock splats of passion. I wouldn’t be happy if every 12 Rods album were produced in this manner, but the dense chords and resplendent melodies Olcott employs on Lost Time
render the passion palpable, in-your-face, and overall superlatively compelling.
There is a certain poppiness to Lost Time
that isn’t wholly present on the band’s other releases, but that newfound bang-bang approach to melody is bolstered first and foremost by Olcott’s songwriting instincts, which are just as on-point here as they ever were. “Fake Magic 8-Ball,” the unusually smooth-talkin’ first song, demonstrates Olcott’s fluidity in shuttling between musical ideas that seem like they shouldn’t go together–cf. the luminous descending guitar line that slides the surly verses to the placid chorus, one of many non-verbal 12 Rods melodies I love to sing along to. Olcott, ever the restless grasshopper, then tops his own immensely pleasant slow jam with “Twenty Four Hours Ago,” whose delightfully dense intro riff on the guitar is topped only by a slightly more delightfully dense guitar riff two lines into the first verse.
Olcott’s fluidity, his stacking of distinct and distinctly great melodic ideas into a structure that kinda coheres and kinda doesn’t, is at the heart of 12 Rods’ addictive power, and you hear it over and over again on Lost Time
: the just-absurdly-good ascending laser-synth line in the thrilling “Accidents Waiting to Happen” as it leads into the “OHHHHHHHHWASTE MY TIME REACHING BACKWARDS” full-body sprint of the song’s bridge; the shoutalong verses to “Terrible Hands” leading into its cosmic la-la chorus; everything, everywhere, all the time.
Or, well, almost: Lost Time
, almost impressively for such a good album, closes with three mediocre songs. Olcott seems to have been proud of closer “Telephone Holiday,” and lamented Rundgren’s decision to leave it on the cutting room floor of Separation Anxieties
. But Rundgren was right: that song is creepy and sucks, whereas most 12 Rods songs are creepy and rock, with a handful that rock but aren’t creepy. The descending melody that limns “Telephone Holiday” barely counts as anything to me, stirs nothing up. “Lost/Found” is a Janus-faced instrumental. “The Time is Right (To Be Wrong),” the antepenultimate track, is immediately corny but pleasant withal, offering up a weird slideshow presentation-style “inspiring” melody–until the even more “inspirational” chorus hits and you find that the corn has turned sour. The time is right (hey!) – to be wrong! *** off with that.
12 Rods, in an odd, free-associative, and very personal way, remind me of JPEGMAFIA. I like to use the biology metaphor of “emergent properties” to describe the abstract effect: just as you wouldn’t get a human being from jamming together all the things that make a human being, so too do you not get a sense of the whole of these artists’ practice from cobbling together their constituent parts. JPEGMAFIA annoys the *** out of me sometimes because he is constantly bristling against the norms and dictates of good taste and society, and a lot of those norms and dictates are ones my mind and body agree with. Olcott does this, too–I think his lyrics are always looking for some way to worm into an uncomfortable spot in the listener’s brain (“I Wish You Were a Girl,” “Kaboom,” and the like especially). As with Peggy, Olcott's personality is all over his projects, and it's not always pleasing to look at or hear.
You’re grasping at straws, however, if you think there’s a one-to-one relationship between this light repulsion and the aesthetic experience of listening to their music. I say this in part to explain why I think some of the 12 Rods songs that are creepy are good, that the verses of “The Time is Right” are corny in a good way, the chorus in a bad way. 12 Rods puts me in touch, to an unusual extent, with the idea that good rock and pop music is always vacillating between a dynamic of giving pleasure and one of giving us some spiky ***, in subtle and hard-to-discern patterns and dynamics so that we end up hardly knowing whence came each. We instead sit implacably with our divided selves and tap our feet and go mmm-mmm-mm at the parts that rule. Lost Time
, sure, makes me glancingly aware of my divided self. But it’s a good album--and its forward-thinking panoply of genre maneuvers seems to "matter"--above all because there are so many parts that rule to go mmm-mmm-mm at. Pop philosophy has never tasted so delectable.