Athens, GA-based melodic rockers Eureka California debuted on record almost exactly five years ago; since that time the music’s gotten louder as the lineup has slimmed down to a duo. Wielding sticks, electrified strings, and copious shouting, their 2014 sophomore full-length brought them to the edge of great things, and its follow-up Versus, which hits stores and online shopping carts March 25, carries their material slightly over the border; it’s available on compact disc, vinyl, and digital through Happy Happy Birthday To Me.
Formed by guitarist-vocalist Jake Ward, right from the start Eureka California specialized in stripping things down, blending ’90s indie rock and pop-punk catchiness with a garage orientation and on their 4-song “Modern Times” EP from 2011, flashes of a lo-fi feel. Rather than luxuriating in muffled hiss ambiance, they seemed to desire the turning up of stereo volume knobs as 2012’s full-length debut Big Cats Can Swimwas rawer and more urgent.
A 2013 spilt 45 with the Liverpudlian trio Good Grief marked the departure of Eureka California’s bassist Charles Walker; subsequently, Ward and drummer Marie A. Uhler simply plowed forward and left the spot vacant. The shift to the duo lifestyle did nothing to radically alter the sound, which was and continues to be more about raucous and memorable motion than heaviness.
2014’s Crunch made an even deeper racket in part because Ward’s voice box was gushing with even more enthusiasm than before, underpinning the pop-punk in their equation as the amp gristle and sheer velocity accentuated the garage end of the spectrum, and to the pair’s credit they avoided planting their flag in any particular antecedent’s stylistic sandbox. Snatches of precedent could be discerned, however; to name a couple: ‘90s NYC duo Kicking Giant, and early Built to Spill (more to the point, the vocals of Doug Martsch).
Key to Crunch’s success is its sense of balance; a recurring humorous side never dominates the overall thrust, which is consistently loose without teetering over into sloppy as the songs alternate between punkish simplicity and moments of sophistication. Versus hones the equilibrium as it offers a quick dish of strong tunes and sustained vitality.
Tallying 28 minutes and change, the new album also maintains the alternating of short blasts of two minutes or less with a few lengthier and pop-savvier tunes; after a clean guitar progression opener “Eureka California’s Night In” roars to life, the serrated edge of persistent distortion heightening a showcase of Ward’s raw throat and Uhler’s impressive kit battering.
Adequately clamorous to suggest the speedy mauling of a full band yet with no palpable strain, “Sign My Name with an X” basks in buzzsaw riffs and lithe thumping, but at its core is a solid, if abbreviated, piece of pop songwriting. These clipped sonic blossoms can perhaps hint at the similar strategy of one Robert Pollard, though Eureka California navigate an aural lane distinct from the one traversed by the Ohio-based tippler.
In the duo’s favor they carry on to sidestep immediate comparisons, and the likenesses that do occasionally creep up can be unexpected and are reliably understated, e.g. “Sign My Name with an X” briefly brings ’80s-’90s DC act Shudder to Think to mind. “Another Song about TV” registers a bit like Built to Spill in miniature.
“Sober Sister” is the first of Versus’ selections to attain standard pop song duration and would in fact be even longer if Eureka California didn’t elect for such a brisk tempo; ultimately, it’s not so fast that the pop-rock flavor gets overwhelmed, with Ward’s axe retaining hooks amidst the reverberations as his vocals display a touch of restraint.
Where much of their stuff hovers around the pop-punk neighborhood without wallowing in the negative connotations of the style, following track “Ghosts” hits upon a chunky indie rock mid-tempo while evading the underwhelming atmosphere of swiped formal tropes. Side one closes with “Fear and Loathing in the Classic City,” a solo acoustic ditty that’s accomplishment is partially based on resisting the terribly overplayed tendency to boost the scenario with amplification.
Throughout the LP Ward engages with assorted emotions while shunning the maudlin, and “Cobwebs in the Wind” begins side two in an uptempo mode flaunting equality of vocal expression, guitar dynamics, and drum gallop/cymbal crash. “Caffeine” does employ the tactic of softer strum into louder rocking but without succumbing to bombast as the cut trucks along in a manner appropriate to its tile and then rapidly dissipates.
“Realizing Your Actuality” precedes in the opposite direction, sprinkling a dash of standard power pop into a muscular indie situation and then spreading out to four minutes. Versus returns to acoustic environs and brevity for its penultimate track, though the crisp strumming and unperturbed voicing combines with lyrical snap mildly reminiscent of Lou Barlow, insuring that “Everybody Had a Hard Year” is a fully formed prelude to the album’s closing highpoint.
Also the LP’s longest number, “I Will Write Mine over Potomac” cultivates an air of tension through a simple guitar line and vocals and then interweaves it with sturdy rocking but at a slower pace fitting the contemplative nature of Ward’s calm expressiveness. For a unit that’s generally excelled at youthfully bounding forth and energetically flailing, the song folds a level of maturity into their recipe.
That additive frequently accompanies a loss of edge and/or energy, but here the added breadth strengthens the whole. Delivering on their early promise, Versus exceeds its mixture of styles and prior models and sounds a lot like Eureka California.
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