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Submarine Races - Hard To Look At, Easy To See

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Artist: Submarine Races

Album: Hard To Look At, Easy To See

Label: In the Red

Review date: Jan. 20, 2009

Submarine Races’s self-titled debut on In the Red was a pleasant surprise. In a sea of skuzzy, chaotic garage releases, it was great to hear a polished, catchy pre-punk act try to rein it in. They’re definitely from the same neighborhood as their labelmates, but a little tidier and refined, taking a lot of cues from the Modern Lovers and ‘80s British guitar-pop. What it lacked in punch it made up for in staying power, and by the time their EP on Shit Sandwich was released, they showed they could let it hang out with the best of them. Their brash cover of the Minutemen’s “Party With Me Punker” was a declaration and a threat: Nice guys can get rough, too.

Hard To Look At, Easy To See picks up where the EP left off, maintaining a strong surf influence but roughing up the pristine, poppy UK post-punk with a little bit of American rock ‘n roll, bad behavior and all. The weakest plank for Submarine Races has always been Ian Adams’ subdued vocals; they sounded like a disinterested impersonation of the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson. Not so anymore. Adams found a snarl and a point of view, audibly growing more confident as he slurs and sneers his way through Stooges style rockers like "Part B (Where Are You Going)" and "Let It Go." More often that not, Adams sounds like an even sloppier Craig Finn back when he used to stagger around the city instead of holdin’ steady at the bar. “Accidents” has the band going full tilt, buzzsaw guitars tripping over the drums with Adams’ rant about the sound of accidents careening over the top. The guitars kick into overdrive halfway through with some serious head-banging riffing, and it’s clear there’s no more playing it safe.

Despite the new found confidence, the continued fascination with ‘50s guitar music still leaves its mark and separates Submarine Races from the rest of the ‘90s indie rock sound-alikes. The guitar twang on most of the album owes a heavy debt to early surf pioneers, as well as Link Wray. “Harem Bells” goes one step further in co-opting the theatrical skronk of Tom Waits’ “Midtown (Instrumental),” creeping closer and closer to the rockabilly edge. But like fellow surf freaks Shannon and the Clams, Submarine Races takes a modern enough approach to avoid derivative status. It’s less Chuck Berry and more Marty McFly.

There’s still plenty of slick early Rough Trade art-pop melodies on the four bass-dominated tracks that end the record, which unfortunately lack the staying power of the rest. The beats settle into a pretty nice groove, but with each repeated riff, Adams grows tamer and tamer, relapsing into the passable but ordinary vocal delivery of the first record. That’s not to say it isn’t worth listening all the way through; the borderline heavy metal freak-out at the end of "Diminished Returns" is a reminder of how ripped the rest of the record was. Here’s to hoping that Submarine Races follows through on the promise of the first two-thirds of the record and get even sloppier in the future. They’re too good to play it polite.

By Evan Hanlon

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