Back in 2011, Archie Powell & The Exports were trying to Skip Work, fueling the kegger with their good-natured jams. Things have gotten considerably darker in the three years that have passed, and if new album Back in Black is any indication, a good deal of that seems to be tied to girl troubles. But the impish grin behind Powell’s increasingly strong beard can’t be repressed, no matter how many Bleach-indebted howls or rough-hewn declarations of heartbreak he’s loaded into the band’s new LP.
At one of their sets at SXSW this year, Powell noted that their album was called Back in Black because why not. Or maybe it was because fuck it. I can’t quite remember. Either way, the sentiment is there. The entire album attempts to ride on the cheeky balance struck by that title, both tied into painful experiences and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. However, the lyrics occasionally push too forcefully into territory far darker and more straightforward than the quirky smirk the Exports do best.
The last verse of opener “Everything’s Fucked” highlights that clunky, forced feeling: “I’m sorry that I just can’t move ahead/ But sometimes I wish that inside my head/ Where your face and your hips keep a permanent bed/ That a bullet would be there instead.” Powell simply pulls off the mischievous, albeit sad-sack good guy way more believably than the grimy, aggressive, broken guy. Some heroes are supposed to be tragic, and others (like Powell’s fellow Chicagoans, the Cubs) work well as lovable losers, and lovable losers don’t come off as well complaining about masturbating or talking about killing themselves.
“Every so often, I’ll walk by the place/ Where you used to live just for the thrill/ And look in the window and hope for your face/ But the storefront just don’t fit the bill,” Powell sings on “Rodeo Crush”. On “Holes”: “I’m afraid to go to bed with the lights out/ Reorganize, reorganize/ Celebrate for all my singles and shut-outs.” It’s not just the massive power-pop hook on the latter that makes it such a winner; it’s the breath of warmth and the believable fragility. Luckily, these moments start to seep in more and more as the album progresses, and even when the lyrics get to be a bit too stereotypically dark, the hooks are impeccable (especially the sunny “Tattoo on My Brain” and the psycho-bounce of “I’m Gonna Lose It”).
The album closes out appropriately on “Everything’s Cool”; after listing the indignities and pains of a horrible breakup, the kind of thing this whole album aches with, there’s a silver lining to be had. “But now I think that finally everything’s cool.” The pressure has lessened, and the sun starts to shine. Through a couple of albums with the Exports, Powell’s become the kind of guy that you want this sort of positivity for. While even the good guys, the lovable losers, the imps have their black days, it’s good to know that everything’s still cool.
Essential Tracks: “Holes”, “Tattoo on My Brain”, and “Everything’s Cool”