My good friend Will thinks this Priests album – their debut LP – is the best record of the year thus far. Given that it grabbed the red over at everyone’s least favorite music blog, I had been listening to it on-and-off for a couple weeks when we had this conversation. When I responded with apathy, Will defended with conviction, and then continued to defend a week later, taking my comments to heart. I had no choice but to give the record a few really good, careful, close-inspection listens to see if it truly held up. (This is a punk album with post-punk and riot grrl influences, by the way).
For one thing, the record mostly nails the sequencing, which any consistent reader of this site will know is pretty much my favorite thing to remark on regarding any particular LP. It’s opener, “Appropriate”, kicks the record off with a bang, driving a tom/timpani heavy drum beat into a roller coaster of ups and downs that nonetheless remain skeletal in arrangement, never flooding the scene with unnecessary guitars or synths. Vocalist Katie Alice Greer is clearly the star of the show, and her snarling, direct, non-sequitur, political/personal one-liners are actually great. She spits “You want something to move away from / A reason to colonize” side by side with “You are not you / Contestant, you’re on Wheel of Fortune!” What is she saying? I don’t exactly know, but the references are awesome.
“JJ” continues along with a surf-rock riff and more shout singing, with Greer’s confident, guttural delivery again lighting up the lyric sheet with “The most interesting thing about you / Was that you smoked Parliaments”. But third-sequenced “Nicki” is lacking both the energy and lyrical prowess of the first two tracks, as does “Lelia 20”. These songs are so minimalist in their production that they really live and die on their riffs and their vocals, and the move on these two tracks toward a spacier, more atmospheric punk sound kind of works against the group’s punchiness. Luckily, “No Big Bang”, the towering, spoken-word centerpiece, swoops in to the rescue, detailing existential dread against an ominous bass riff and screeching, reverbed guitars from both sides. It borders on pretentious, what with its “Just the weight of my own insignificance, my foolishness, and my hubris thrust into the glaring light that is the sun”, but the song doesn’t overstay its welcome or try too hard to be huge, to its credit.
After a pretty out-of-left-field classical string arrangement interlude (that feels kind of unnecessary), the album descends back into trebeley, blissed-out surf rock tones for “Nothing Feels Natural”, where Greer abandons the snarl for ‘pretty’, songwriter/ shoegazey vocals that rob the band, once again, of their individuality. “Pink White House” takes a turn for the political (“Come on palm trees, come on soft seas, come on vacation, come on SUV/ Oooh baby my American dream”) and falls back into the band’s wheel house – tense, tom-heavy drumming, bouncing bass lines, fuzzed out guitars, freewheeling structure, minor and diminished chord changes.
The penultimate “Puff” has my favorite opening of any song on here, with the most direct, clear and sarcastic vocals I’ve heard in a while declaring “My best friend says “I want to start a band called Burger King” and I say “Do it!” / Achieve your dreams, Burger King!” But then the closing track (which on albums like this is usually just another high-energy punk track), “Suck”, is a dancey, snaking groove with that softer singing style I don’t really care for? With cowbells? And a sax solo? What? Such a wild turn in style would have worked great coming out of the interlude, but as is it ends the album on a weird note. The song itself isn’t that bad, featuring the record’s most transparent lyrics (about a guy who “sucks”), but I would have hoped for a bigger bang to end such an (at times) explosive album.
There are consistency issues, to be sure. The album can feel a bit formulaic at times (particularly toward the end of the front half or early in the back half), but at 34 minutes, it packs enough detours to stay away from boring. Greer’s vocals are great except when they aren’t (like on the title track) and the lyrics range from pretty good to very sharp. I feel like with 1 or 2 more great moments, the album could have cleared some kind of plateau, but as is, there are just a few too many nagging concerns for me to say it’s any better than a solid, better-than-average guitar album. Still, the highs are pretty high. As a 4 or 5 song EP, this would have slayed. I like it, don’t love it.