Eschewing the alt-rock intricacies of Out of the Fierce Parade and mostly down-tempo, piano-centric orchestrations of Elysium, the Velvet Teen once again redefine themselves and their sound on their latest triumph, Cum Laude!. Cum Laude! not only treads new ground for the group, but does so with formidable aplomb, wrecking any notion that this band can be pinned down.
In contrast to Elysium's six extended tracks, Cum Laude! favors shorter, quicker, and more dynamic compositions. One of the first things you'll notice on it is the heavy vocal filters, which, ironically, only embolden Judah Nagler's croon. Nagler has never been stronger and here his voice simply rises above the glitch-heavy rock like a heralding of something prophetic and radical. Opening track "333" attests to this when Nagler belts out, "I took the pain out of my pen / I took my self out of my selfish ways / and wrote all...I took the greed out of my grin / and sunk my teeth into my work instead / and they followed."
Although produced with the same sparkling precision as Elysium, Cum Laude! is a hybridized beast of a supremely varied parentage. And although the electronic add-ins come from sources that are currently being widely exploited (like slightly off-key video game samples or eighties-sounding riff samples) the combination of effects and sounds is unlike anything else being done in contemporary independent rock. In start contrast to the intimate draw of Elysium, some might find this album a bit off-putting, and I posit that it is the intention; the Teens are simply directing your attention elsewhere, or everywhere, instead of straight ahead.
Only one song drops the voice inflection ("False Profits"), and while it surely is the slower, stand-out track of the album, it's a nice break in the momentum, allowing one to savor the subsequent buildup. It peaks again with the outstanding "Spin the Wink" and the jewel of the album, "Gyzmkid," an uplifting, intimate, and intriguing opus. Each track is a creation of its own standing, completely unlike the surrounding ones, but entirely Velvet Teen. "Roller Rink" truly sounds like Nagler, Deitz and Staples are playing in a punk rock roller rink; Nagler's vocals sound like they're emanating from some tinny, rink-side amplifier while some dateless emo kids fill the background with video game glitch-and-pop. "Noi Boi" starts out with a riff that could have been torn from a Genesis or Peter Gabriel song circa 1988. "Flicking Clint" throws down jangly guitar with the minimal of electronic infusion, but pushes Nagler's all-out wail to the forefront.
And with each song you're going to get the standard personal, erudite, and often elusive -- but always passionate and calculated -- lyrics. The Velvet Teen obviously put some thought into the theme and song titles as well, banking on the rebirth idea with "Gyzmkid" and "Bloom," "Building a Whale," and "Noi Boi," not to mention the double entendre album title (but what the fuck, I mentioned it anyway).
Having seen the Velvet Teen this past winter (along with about forty others) and having listened to the "Gyzmkid" single a gazillion times in the past two months, I was prepared for something very different. (The previous time I had seen VT was a stirring but mostly sit-down affair.) While I was disappointed at the recent show's omission of not only the epic "Chimera Obscurant" but also the complete keks and Elysium songs, once Nagler turned on his computer and started breaking strings, I knew this shit was going to be something special.
And Cum Laude! truly is special. There's nothing like it out there. Each track rises above the next and each track has its own identity. If there's one reason the Velvet Teen only attracts a handful of listeners on a cold winter night, it's because this band is simply too fucking sophisticated for the desensitized ears of the masses. The Velvet Teen shatter their own mold on a regular basis and perhaps listeners can't keep up. Cum Laude! is a graduation of sorts -- and it's unlike any other ceremony. If you're willing to attend, the payoff is worth it.