Writing a review of the followup album to my number one of 2009 (and a perfect five-star review), Why There Are Mountains, is gonna be tricky. Don’t want to fanboy it up (though it’s nearly impossible because I love these guys so much) but it also makes me harder on them. The sophomore slump is created by the fans, not the band; its expectations not being met, not usually an outright bad album being written by the artist. Now, this is going to take all my skill... *whacks toaster with a rock*
In already-typical CEG fashion, Lenses Alien kicks off with an epic jam. This time it’s the eight-minute “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”. It starts off bouncy and poppy, then breaks down to near-nothing (with a chance for new-ish bassist Matthew Whipple to noodle around), followed by ambient guitar noise (singer Joseph D’Agostino’s favorite thing), finally kicking back into a Sonic Youth-style, crunchy guitar freakout. “Keep Me Waiting” takes things back to pop territory with a concise three-minute song that again reminds me of a more melodic Goo-era SY track. “Plainclothes”, while not new to me (having downloaded a live BBC-recorded version about a year ago), is a great song with D’Agostino’s seamless transitions in tempo and dynamics. “Definite Darkness” (a clean-channel toe-tapper) and “Wavelengths” (with an acoustic intro and prominent faux-vibes keys) were performed live when I saw them here in Bloomington on tour with the Thermals, and I am psyched to have those tunes on record.
One slight bummer is the inclusion of “Another Tunguska”, which seems cheap to me. Again, I love this band and follow their every move, so when they released the original “Tunguska” as a Mountains MP3 B-side in exchange for signing up for their mailing list, I got it immediately. This was two years ago. It also renders that 7” for “...And the Hazy Sea” pretty useless since this was the B-side on that record as well. Casual and new fans will be hearing it for the first time, and it’s a solid re-recording of the track (and here they trim off the rambling intro), but I’m sure I’m not the only fan who wishes that all 10 tracks were brand new.
There is another thing that keeps gnawing at me: Is there a song as great as “Wind Phoenix” on this album? Or a song as catchy at “Indiana”? I’m not so sure that there is. Some songs (“Keep Me Waiting”) come close, but nothing tops either of those tracks in my opinion—at least not yet. And while CEG took a bit of heat for their debut sounding so much like their influences (Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, My Bloody Valentine), they don’t seem to be trying to break that view. I don’t really care because I think the songwriting stacks up amongst their heroes, but I’m sure many journalists will say they’re overstaying their swim time in that gene pool. Lenses as a whole veers more towards the Built to Spill end of things, with less of the dancey/yelpy MM sections (which I loved) hanging out more instead in the arpeggiated/noodly sections like of the “...And the Hazy Sea” variety.
To get back to positives, on the production end, things sound fantastic. Huge guitars; huge drums. John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.; makes sense, right?) mans the knobs and sliders and such, and gets the band sounding as thick as they deserve. However, they are missing many of the bells and whistles that Kyle Johnson layered over the self-released Mountains. Lenses is oddly devoid of any brass and strings. Also, newer dude Brian Hamilton’s keyboards and drummer Matthew Miller’s auxiliary percussion (instruments that played crucial parts on their debut) are tucked away in the mix or altogether absent, peeking up in rare, calm moments like the bridge of “Definite Darkness”. Kind of a big downside for me and it’s a bit odd being that this album is on an honest-to-God label and with a big-name producer. Back to basics already, boys? You are not a “basic” band. Flesh that shit out, son!
But like I said, I’m nitpicking as any fan would of a sophomore release. I enjoy this album a bunch. To wrap things up, “Gary Conduit” gets all up in your face, with sections of pure white noise guitar frothing up around the most throat-shredding screams we've heard yet from D’Agostino. Lenses Alien is a second enjoyable slab from what I anticipate being a band I grow old(er) with. The way they touch on old favorites and push forward with youthful exuberance (while Doug Martsch gets balder and fatter) has me hooked. Again.