Last updated on March 15, 2022
The title of Challenger’s The World Is Too Much For Me is an apt interpretation of both its lyrics and music, but in opposite ways. The lyrics throughout the album are about the byproducts of modern life: fear, desperation and confusion over an amorphous other. The size of the world and its problems are conspiring to overwhelm the lyricist, but the lyrics fight back with a commitment to hope. The music, on the other hand, is more manic than morose, invoking the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s catalog and ’80s synth pop. Songs like “Takers” sound like the output of people who can’t get enough of everything, who have music just spilling out the ears.
Challenger knows its way around a pop hook, creating incredibly memorable tunes like “Are You Scared Too?”, “Don’t Die,” “Life in the Paint” and single “I Am Switches.” But each of these tunes drag some melancholy into the songwriting, to give the highs an extra edge. Good always looks better when it’s beating evil. And so it goes with Challenger, who are at their best when playing with the juxtapositions of light and dark. But it’s all done in a framework of electro-pop that will put a huge smile on your face. The World Is Too Much For Me is easily one of the best releases of the year, recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful, happy music.
Oh Look Out‘s Orchestrated Fuzz is also titled well: the latest from the geek-friendly power-pop band relies heavily on arrangements and album structure. Last year’s Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was dominated by riffs and melodies, causing each song to stick out as its own piece of the puzzle. Orchestrated Fuzz is intended to hang together as one giant experience, like the soundtrack to a video game binge session.
While the tunes pop out less at me in this one, the overall sound is still strong: buzzy guitars and retro-sounding synths are undergirded by big drums and capped off by JP Pfertner’s high-pitched (but not annoyingly so) voice. The songs all run into each other, with opener “Velcro Wolf” snapping off as “Or Be Destroyed” kicks in. Things continue in this vein throughout, to good (aforementioned) effect. Lead single “Monster Fiction” is a standout, as the melody is a killer hook; “Monotone Hurray” sticks out because its awesome title leads me to remember the song. It’s worth noting that the whole thing has a lovably bedroom/garage feel to it; in a world where everything is rushing to sound professional, it’s nice to hear something that sounds lovably like a human made it. The handwritten online zine (!) also adds to that feel. Fans of Weezer, Math the Band, and Matt and Kim will all find much to love in Orchestrated Fuzz.
Also reppin those ’80s hard is Ponychase, which takes the arch synth-pop of Tears for Fears and other hyper-emotive bands of the era and uses it for modern ends. The self-titled EP combines towering synths with twinkling guitar, sparse percussion and Jordan Caress’s commanding but not overbearing voice to create a timeless, otherworldly sound. The modern lyrical cadence and vocal melody structure are what sink their teeth into me, as the joyful synth blast that opens “Believer” is elevated by Caress’s strong vocal performance.
While “Believer” is the most upbeat (and most striking) of the tunes, the rest of the songs on the six-song EP aren’t slouching. Opener “Cup of Hearts” employs many of the same sounds to a more pensive effect, while “Two Times” sounds almost beachy. “Brainwasher” closes out the EP in grand fashion, delivering the best melody of the bunch amid heavily gated snare and Caress’s voice at its torchiest. “Brainwasher, come set me free,” she pleads, and it’s a request that the EP can answer, should you ask of it: just let the sound wash over you. Ponychase’s unique sound is markedly different than other synth-indie-pop, and that’s a great thing.