There was a time when Vagrant was one of my favorite labels. Alkaline Trio had just dropped the best album of their career in From Here to Infirmary, Hey Mercedes’ Everynight Fire Works was spinning constantly, and Rocket from the Crypt’s Group Sounds was their best since 1995’s Scream, Dracula, Scream. The label was constantly putting out great records by the likes of the Get Up Kids, Face to Face, Koufax, No Motiv, Hot Rod Circuit, and Reggie and the Full Effect among others. Over the years, a changing of the guard of sorts took over, and Vagrant entered a dark era, inking deals with bands like Senses Fail, From Autumn to Ashes, Emanuel, and the Bled. Teenage scenesters benefited, while the rest of us scratched our heads. Fast forward to 2006, and Vagrant was again putting out some of the best records of the year, as Saves the Day made their triumphant return, the Lemonheads put forth an incredible late-career effort, and the Hold Steady took the U.S. by storm with Boys and Girls in America.
But what comes next for former pop-punk/post-punk/emo labels? Apparently the answer is second-rate indie rock. Drive-Thru grabbed the gravely underwhelming House of Fools, Fearless gave Anatomy of a Ghost’s mediocre stepchild Portugal. The Man a contract, and Vagrant signed the Comas, a band whose two main claims to fame were having their lead singer dumped by "Dawson’s Creek" (and "Brokeback Mountain") star Michelle Williams, and their Yep Roc release Conductor scoring an 8.0/10 from Pitchfork Media.
Successful and important music is, without a doubt, the artistic amalgamation of two elements: style and substance. Some bands can get away with playing unoriginal music because they more than make up for it with their lyric writing abilities, like the Weakerthans or the aforementioned Hold Steady for instance. Other artists can rely on a mastery of style and innovation in lieu of their words -- think Turbonegro or HORSE the Band of today or the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries on up to the Dixieland jazz ensembles of the 20th century. When a band fails to achieve a remote level of style or substance, its music falls flat. And that’s exactly what happens on the Comas’ Spells.
The first taste of Spells, “Red Microphones” could be mistaken for a Weezer B-side with obtuse medieval lyrics: "Red microphones / They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere / We grind the bones of liar giants / And drink the blood of maidens swooning / The moat around you chokes with stars / As we thrust our swords to Heaven." The root cause of the band’s sloppy incoherent lyrics may be found in the telling and toddler-titled “Stoneded”: "Why am I stoned, you ask me / And I don’t know what you want to hear this time / And I don’t want to be bad no more." The fuzzy indie rock lacks the hooks of contemporaries like Of Montreal and Rogue Wave, often relying on jacked classic melodies like the “Strawberry Fields”-influenced “Thistledown.” About the only really strong song is the upbeat “New Wolf,” which manages some marginally amusing lyrics within the pop-rock melody: "The new wolf sisters don’t cry, they make up / They put on their makeup / Lovers must grieve and bury when necessary / I found you in the bedroom naked, needle in hand." The irony with “New Wolf” is that although it’s one of the better songs on the album, its energetic presentation abruptly interrupts the flow of the otherwise dull current of mid-tempos and ambient grooves.
It’s been a while since I really laid into a record with such contempt. Perhaps both Vagrant and the Comas lose when expectations run high. However, the undeniable disappointment of Spells is insurmountable, and the Comas' first shot at widespread exposure seems to be wasted.