Abrasiveness is relative. Back in 1991, Nirvana’s grunge-punk landmark Nevermind was considered a harsh assault on the mainstream. Nearly two decades later, however, Nevermind sounds shockingly tame, its searing vocals and riffs dulled by years of imitation. Perhaps in response to the tolerance our ears have developed for noise and distortion, a horde of lo-fi acts have been championed by tastemakers in recent years.
For Jay Reatard, the buzz has yet to translate into transcendence. The Memphis garage weirdo has become less wild (and more palatable) as his career has progressed, and new album Watch Me Fall sounds almost pedestrian. Influenced by New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs and their leader, Chris Knox (a potential Reatard collaborator before falling ill earlier this year), Fall is a collection of concise, shambling primitive-pop. If anything, the album is an irritant—the sing-songy, twee-leaning tunes grow monotonous, while the rickety keyboards, faint hisses of distortion and gothabilly riffs feel tired.
Pissed Jeans’ underachiever status, on the other hand, should change with King of Jeans. Dominated by doomy riffs and untamed caveman growls, PJ’s music preserves the danger and barely controlled chaos of ’70s scuzz-garage innovators as well as ’80s hardcore. Lyrically, too, the Pennsylvania band’s nihilism, frustration and shame—three pillars on which punk is built—are concise and clever. And yet there’s something oddly soothing and accessible about the album’s feral edges. Credit goes to Alex Newport’s pristine production, and the way the band skillfully uses unorthodox elements—a repeating vocal slobber or a smart-bomb-precise riff—as abstract hooks.