When Brooklyn’s Xray Eyeballs debuted with Not Nothing a year ago, it was easy to mistake its three-chord garage-punk grind for the Black Lips—admittedly not an unflattering comparison to make when shopping around for blunt punk instruments. Splendor Squalor, the band’s sophomore term paper, still chugs along in 4/4, three-chord comfort, but by eschewing angry ’90s reverb for spacey ’80s uber-echo comes closer to fulfilling singer/guitarist O.J. San Felipe’s reported mission statement: to “make every song sound like a lullaby…not all happy lullabies either.”
It’s fun to imagine unlikely new parents lulling their babes to bed by singing “Die Little Love.” These 11 tracks about violent codependency (“X”), self-medicated joyrides (“Pill Rider”) and the grime of city living (“Gator,” “Gotham Low Lifes”) aren’t ditties for the kids, but each is more memorable than any of the pounding punk-rock sludge of Not Nothing.
Xray Eyeballs achieves a new toned-down, fleshed-out sound after enduring a massive band reshuffle that replaced three former members with Sarah Baldwin (vox/drums) and Liz Lohse (guitar/synth), leaving San Felipe and bassist Carly Rabalais as the only links to the early days of gunky Eyeballs grunge. Rabalais smartly becomes more of a central figure, sharing lead singing duties with San Felipe on almost every track in Pixies-style equality instead of hiding behind the blundering elephant crunch of her bass. Instrumental equality is just as apparent. Every guitar turns down the reverb just enough so sounds can be heard and not merely felt, making room for lush synth twinkles and other little touches—syncopated glockenspiel plinks, eerie string cameos from Cult Of Youth/Zola Jesus tour violinist Christiana Key—that add texture to songs instead of overloading them.
The band’s cynical garage lullabies coalesce most successfully on “Cold Bones,” which plays with the tambourine-flailing exuberance of a lost Pretender’s radio hit, and goes most overboard on album closer “Summer Daze,” which plays with the hashtag listomania (“Swamp ass/Smoke grass”; “Roman candles/Jesus sandals”) of a Portlandia parody. Whether or not the new Xray Eyeballs sound proves more satisfying than its Black Lips thrash of yore, Splendor Squalor is a mature step forward for a band we thought could only stomp.