Lo-fi is an umbrella term used to describe music that sounds like it was played with broken equipment, recorded 30+ years ago, or engineered by a drunk. Its reputation is authenticity, like if a band was struggling, they want to sound like they are struggling financially. They don’t want to sound like rich kids playing with dad’s birthday strat. But as pop culture genius Chuck Klosterman points out in his excellent article about Pavement from GQ, “A better term … would actually be mid-fi, because their material falls somewhere between amateur authenticity and imaginative construction,” which is true, because I’ve never heard a lo-fi band actually sound lo-fi live. It is strange to think that these band’s that pride themselves on staying true to their roots actually go to great effort to not sound like they actually sound. But as an aesthetic choice, it simply comes down to personal preference whether or not you like it. While Black Flag might not have had the option to sound clearer or louder, Pavement surely did and experimented more with traditional recording styles as their career progressed. Strange that simply recording using the quality that can be achieved on a Macbook is considered experimentation by some artists. But these bands and their sound became synonymous, and every few years or so, a new wave of bands emerge and continue the lo-fi tradition, and a new wave of listeners come to appreciate it. From Grandaddy and The Microphones to Times New Viking and Vivian Girls to No Age and Japandroids and even electronic acts like Neon Indian and Dan Deacon, this unmistakable sound quality (or lack there of) has become a membership badge to indie-cred, as if any band that is willing to sound shitty to remain true to themselves deserves respect.
Well, it is more complicated than that. The above bands (and I will spare you analysis on all of them) all use their variation of lo-fi to create artistic visions that go beyond “wouldn’t this sound good fuzzier?” Think of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and how their album used the lo-fi sound as a throwback to dreamy shoegaze and classic indie at the same time, like as if Pavement and My Bloody Valentine had been neighbors. Or Woods using the sound for a psychedelic and traditional Americana effect, knowing full well no amount of interference can hold back Jeremy Earl’s voice. So with the amount of fine bands loosely tied to a scene that isn’t really one at all, Male Bonding runs the possibility of sounding a day late to the party or just the next in line for a tradition that will exist as long as humanity remains as fascinated with the ugly as it is with beauty.
On their debut full length, Nothing Hurts (Lo-fi tip: Negative is good. See No Age, Japandroids’ Post Nothing), Male Bonding clearly differentiate themselves in the scene. They’re shtick: they are British. From what I have read about them, they sound legitimate and have played shows with just about every fuzzy band currently recording, including No Age, Vivian Girls (who guest on album closer “Worse To Come”) and Smith Westerns. And they clearly can write a chorus. And play fast. The band sounds engaged with their material even. Unfortunately for them, nearly every trick they bring has already been brought. And though it’s not all their fault that they sound redundant (their catchiest song, “Weird Feelings” can’t help it if “The Overacheivers”, current single from Liars, sounds very similar, right?), their song’s “catchy” chorus loses its luster moments after. In fact, I listened to Nothing Hurts in a number of situations and never found a time where the music was noticeable. In the car my mind would drift, at home I would tune it out to a book, and at work, well, I focused on work. Though I never minded it or was bored by it, a good record will demand people’s attention, seeking out the one person that tries to ignore and holding them hostage until it has grown tired of being heard. Or something. But the separation between the average and artistic gets blurred here, and the Warped Tour kids are starting to wonder what the big difference between them and the elitists is.
The band that sounds most like the Male Bonding in song structure and style is Vivian Girls, except for the doo-wop influenced vocals, sexy bass player (wink), and ability to switch instruments while playing a song. Male Bonding is more interested in punk, though the band also claims shoegaze as a major influence. Unfortunately, the only time that comes across is on the album’s highlight, “Franklin”, which sounds like The Stone Roses if they had formed four years later. It’s a ghostly track with a melody that seems familiar and unsettling concurrently. This vibe never repeats on the album, which is a shame, but at only a shade over 30 minutes, there just isn’t time to do anything except kick out the jams. Like Dum Dum Girls, there’s just this unimaginative stench to the music, though its not entirely absent of simple pleasures.
In their press release, John Authur Webb, the band’s guitarist, states, “I dont like long songs…I lose interest when listening them, and I lose interest when writing them.” Well, maybe a better reaction against long boring songs would be a long interesting song? Like 2 ADHD-crossed lovers, Male Bonding and I just can’t meet on what we deem interesting music and though an amazing live show or more slow shoegazing that exploits their heritage could prove convincing of their potential, for now they are just a boy version of Dum Dum Girls and it’s likely I’ll forget them as quickly as I forgot their songs.