A volatile mix of muscle and flirt, Pretty & Nice careens from one measure to the next, from straight-up, jagged punk riffs to swoony falsetto croons. On this, their second full-length, the band has slimmed down from a foursome to a trio, shedding whatever bottom their sound got from bassist Andy Contoise. “Piranha,” the opening track, is all trebly mayhem, with founders Jeremy Mendocino and Holden Lewis splintering post-punk guitar into shards, and spinning harpsichord keyboards into chaos. Drummer Bobby Landry holds the cut down, barely, alternating between hard-on-the-fours pounding and more delicate, syncopated commentary.
There’s something very 1980s about their mix of silly pop and new wave edginess, recalling not just XTC but dawn-of-MTV bands like Devo, the Fixx, the B52s and Wall of Voodoo. “Tora, Tora, Tora” has that Reagan-era dance-party-in-the-fallout-shelter vibe: its manic beat storming ahead and sliding forward; its piano banging on psychotically high keys; its mildly political lyrics linking singing girls and atomic bombs. “Nuts and Bolts,” another fast one, cuts abstract rattling guitar riffs with stop-short drums. The beat sounds like it’s rolling around in a tilt box, all the drum parts slammed first to one side of the bar, then the other. A fluid, soul chorus of “oh-oh-oh-ohs” slathers over all the juddering rhythm, as if Hall & Oates sat in on a Les Savvy Fav song.
The band lets its pop side dominate just once, on “Peekaboo,” the lone outing where delicately arranged melodies are allowed to spin out on their own terms, without getting strung out over barbed rhythms. It’s not a bad song, a little like an old Of Montreal cut. Still, the sense of tension, of always waiting for the falsetto croon to run into enemy fire, or for the splatter beat to melt into lush soul melodies, is notably absent. Pretty is fine. Nice is okay. It’s just that Pretty & Nice are much more interesting when they turn a little bit ugly, a little bit mean.