Superdrag ranks among the more underrated rock bands of the 1990s, though perhaps that statement is only true in hindsight. It’s easy to imagine a world circa 1996 in which you couldn’t pass a peaceful minute without hearing “Sucked Out” on the radio or MTV. But that infectious lead single carried the promise of something singer/songwriter John Davis couldn’t quite deliver.
The hope was that Davis might become the next Matthew Sweet or Rivers Cuomo — a slightly troubled, slightly sweet genius in the field of major-minor pop melodies. It’s not that Superdrag squandered their talent; they just became interested in things other than fame, penning a follow-up record (1998’s fantastic Head Trip in Every Key) that failed commercially even as critics lauded its conceptual framework and wider sonic palette.
Superdrag called it quits in 2003, a move spurred by Davis’ alcoholism and subsequent conversion to Christianity. He did stay close with guitarist Brandon Fisher and the rest of the band, eventually reuniting with them in 2007 for one last run at the magic. That lasted all of three years, but Davis continued to write songs as a solo artist and as the frontman of hardcore outfit Epic Ditch. At some point, he and Fisher got together in the latter’s home and started working on a track Fisher had just written. The end result, a shoegaze song they called “Deliquesce”, was impressive enough for them to enlist Epic Ditch drummer Nick Slack in a full-time band, and The Lees of Memory was born.
The band’s debut album, Sisyphus Says, is heavily indebted to the 1990s, but not in the ways you might imagine. During their Superdrag days, Davis and Fisher powered themselves into the buzz bin on the back of poppy guitar melodies overlaid with just the right amount of feedback, finding that snotty sweet spot between Big Star’s #1 Record and Weezer’s Blue Album. With The Lees of Memory, the duo has decided to abandon pop accessibility for a sound that’s as self-consciously shoegazey as it gets.
The real My Bloody Valentine would have a hard time writing a song that sounds more like Loveless than “We Are Siamese”, the opening track and lead single off Sisyphus Says. All of the key elements are there: the breathy vocals, the wall of reverb, and a swooning guitar melody heavily reminiscent of the one that kicks off “When You Sleep”. It’s a well-crafted slab of backwards-looking shoegaze that adds almost nothing new to the genre, and it’s a curious direction for these veteran musicians to take. It’s not as though we’re dealing with a couple of teenagers who just stumbled upon their dad’s old record collection and decided to start a band; Davis and Fisher have been making creative, worthwhile music for years. But their latest project seems like a way for them to do their best impressions of other artists rather than mine the depths of their own legacy for inspiration.
This is not to say that Sisyphus Says is merely a Loveless rip-off. The ghost of practically every shoegaze band from the early ‘90s shows up here in some way or another, whether it’s Ride peeking out from behind the thundering drums of “Deliquese” or Spacemen 3 lending their hallucinatory riffage to “One Wave in the Sea”. It’s fitting that the album’s cover art (painted by Davis himself) depicts two arrows headed in opposite directions. The Lees of Memory seem to be a ship without a rudder, following a grab bag of influences toward whichever sound they fancy next.
That said, there is no especially weak song among the 11 presented here; the songcraft matches what you might expect from two guys who did a decade’s worth of time in above-average pop bands. As a collection of song experiments, Sisyphus Says succeeds wildly in some places and modestly in others. “Deliquese” is an epic headbanger with a chorus that soars on the back of Davis’ sleepy vocals, and “Reenactor” rides an erratic drum machine to one of the album’s more interesting moments. In a rare moment of vulnerability, “Don’t Part Ways” strips down the band to just Davis and a 12-string guitar. It’s the album’s emotional center, and it’s all the more effective for being surrounded on both sides by such chaotic noise.
The most poignant moments on Sisyphus Says come when Davis and Fisher momentarily forget they’re trying to do this whole shoegaze thing and slip back into their old chemistry. There is a pop band somewhere inside The Lees of Memory that’s trying to break out, and that tension can be felt all over these 11 songs. Maybe that’s why I’d recommend Sisyphus Says in spite of its obvious pandering to ‘90s nostalgia. It’s almost as if these guys can’t help but write devastatingly effective pop melodies, even if they wish they belonged to a different part of music history than their own.
Essential Tracks: “Deliquese”, One Wave in the Sea”, and “Don’t Part Ways”