With one ricocheting, window-rattling, distorted guitar chord, Hooray for Earth seem to announce, “We are older, wiser, and this time, we are not fucking around.” Over the course of two EPs between 2009 and 2011, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston group generated a substantial amount of indie buzz that proved well-earned with the release of 2011’s much-adored debut, True Loves.
Three years is a lifetime (or three) in the world of internet buzz, and while band leader Noel Heroux kept busy gigging as a touring guitarist for bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars and Autre Ne Veut, news from the Hooray for Earth front was intermittent. It’s clear that the pressure of following up a beloved debut album weighed heavily on Heroux’s mind. “This album is the most intentional thing I’ve ever put together,” he says in the new record’s press release. “I wanted everything loud and direct so you don’t have to guess at what you’re getting into.”
“Direct” is a good word to describe the new record, Racy, and a good measure for where the new material steers away from Hooray for Earth’s earlier work. The band built their reputation on synth-heavy indie rock with epic pop hooks and choruses embedded in a sometimes psychedelic wash that would sink into the listener, surprising with casual listenability. On Racy, Heroux strips away that artifice, going straight for the jugular. That gnarly, album-opening guitar chord comes through like an act of self-immolation, burning off the excess to reveal the pop hero hiding below.
Consider opener “Hey” as a raison d’etre for the album. That guitar riff and the slow-building melody offer a sneak preview of new elements at play. The guitar is, obviously, rougher and moved up in the mix. The bass and percussion (in “Hey” represented by a cresting cymbal roll) are also turned up. One of the enduring delights of the album is bassist Chris Principe’s consistent but never ostentatious work on the low end. On the record’s best songs, the synth-borne melody and overall dense arrangements are de-emphasized — still present, just not the focus.
If “Hey” is a statement of purpose, then the album really begins with “Keys”. This track showcases all of the aforementioned elements at their best. A driving synth hook is soon joined by a stripped-down passage that foregrounds Heroux’s soft tenor before being matched with a lusty bass sound and a surprisingly aggressive guitar riff. The song’s tale of a heart yearning for the comfort of familiarity builds toward fiery dismissal in the bridge as Heroux grudgingly concedes, “Don’t really think it’s a home.” His guitar squeals and cymbals crash around him.
This new, more confident iteration of Hooray for Earth turns a simple pop sentiment into a memorable hook. While the band’s early output was successful, they suffered from the (oftentimes endearing) indie rock tendency of throwing everything into the stew and praying that what came out would be delicious. By contrast, these arrangements are straightforward and effective. Heroux co-produced Racy with Chris Coady (Grizzly Bear, Beach House, Future Islands), and the duo’s work together demonstrates a songwriter (and producer) coming into his own.
However, Heroux missteps when treading the balance between pleasing form and enduring content. “Say Enough” opens with a scintillating synth melody that hints at the pop hook to come. It only takes a few seconds before the huge chorus arrives, a nearly shouted ’80s hook that turns from sweet to sour before the first run through, and it returns again and again over the song’s nearly five-minute runtime. Heroux was no doubt imagining an epic live chorus, but it feels out of place in his plaintive voice; this is territory best left to the likes of Chromeo.
The same issue plagues an almost diametrically opposed track, “Last, First”. Here, the band traffics in a different sort of ’80s homage, with a pensive tempo and matched synth/vocal melody reminiscent of a lost Toto B-side. While there is no questioning of purpose, the danger of stripping away dross is one risk of exposing a core that is so bright and shimmery it’s difficult to behold.
On Racy, Heroux gets to extend his flirtation with the enduring pop hook. But while there is nothing wrong with writing a great pop song, it’s always important that a record’s structure support the shiny exterior. The album performs an almost dizzying vacillation between mannered pop rock like “Keys” and late album highlight “Happening”, not to mention the ’80s synth-anchored excess of “Say Enough”. This makes for an uneven listening experience and detracts from the sharply conceived and executed songs. Three years is a long time to wait for such unbalanced output. Here’s to hoping that on the next go that Heroux’s sharpened vision is of a coherent album.
Essential Tracks: “Keys”, “Airs”