It’s unlikely that Veruca Salt’s original lineup of Nina Gordon, Louise Post, Steve Lack, and Jim Shapiro ever imagined influencing bands 20 years in the future. One listen to Colleen Green or Charly Bliss, though, is all it takes to recognize the Chicago band’s importance, even if just with 1994’s American Thighs. Ghost Notes, Veruca Salt’s fifth album, plays out like a thank-you note, but unlike most reunited bands, Veruca Salt don’t aim to recapture the past. Instead, the four-piece ditches easy nostalgia for a thorough embrace of their alternative rock roots.
When they returned for Record Store Day 2014 with “The Museum of Broken Relationships”, things seemed like they could go in either direction. Veruca Salt could embark on a money grab reunion tour or use the holiday to ensure their reunion news reached every fan. Ghost Notes suggests they did the latter. While that single did stick around (B-side “It’s Holy” was axed on the final cut), it was tidied up for the album, warping its brief timestamp and prowling bass to better support the angsty lyrics. Now, the reshaped high school heartbreak prose fits in with the present day.
The band knows better than to dwell on the past. The cliches of the ’90s — power chords, grunge production, drawn-out vocal groans — are behind them, for better or worse. Now middle aged, the four musicians aren’t pretending they’re still in the decade of Lisa Frank stickers and flannel, and they occasionally get lost in the fluff. That doesn’t mean every pop punch hit the trashcan. Hefty grunge romps about in “Black and Blonde” and morphs into cheery melodies on “Eyes on You”. The pop peaks on “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl”, a two-minute slap of jetting guitars and taunting refrains. Veruca Salt are still writing catchy, raging songs, but the naivety of their intent and its two-decade-old edits are miles away here.
Maybe it’s because they frequently opt for slower songs. On “Empty Bottle”, Veruca Salt arrive in a contented, contemplative space. “I don’t want to drown if you’re not drowning with me” should stamp itself as a cliche, but the sonic twists around it hint at recurring panic. “The Sound of Leaving” clears the foggy murk of Kurt Cobain, “Lost to Me” treads in Liz Phair territory, and closer “Alternica” recalls the operatic nature of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead in six string-laden minutes. Even “Triage”, the album’s secret weapon, twiddles its thumbs in an endearing fashion, a move that allows its final moments of crushing riffs to hit three times as hard.
Holding on to feelings of youth while accepting your age is hard no matter the context. Veruca Salt’s original lineup gives it a whirl anyway and comes close to pulling it off from front to back. Opening lines like “I know it’s late but it’s better than never/ I always thought you would live forever” on “I’m Telling You Now” are strung like candy necklaces, the sugary vocal delivery contrasting with the snarl of the guitars. Veruca Salt helped form the take-it-and-run blend of power and melody in the ’90s. It’s been 18 years since the original lineup tackled their original sound, so Ghost Notes slows things down to half the tempo to pretend like nothing has changed. For 14 songs, it’s easy to pretend that’s true.
Essential Tracks: “Empty Bottle”, “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl”, and “The Sound of Leaving”