Jeffrey Novak is one of those characters who we get so used to getting solid records from that we kind of take him for granted. Though it’s not like he releases so much material that you fade by the second side and assume he threw an album together once he had three good tunes planted. His occasional solo forays aren’t way off the mark from Cheap Time’s pounding pop. But a new Cheap Time record—Exit Smiles being their fourth LP—always feels like a welcome return of focus.
The great opener/title track pulls you in with one of Novak’s snottiest vocal performances (which is really saying something), and chops down into a stuttering guitar string-slicing coda, then right into the more melodic (and excellently titled) Same Surprise. That could be the catch phrase for followers of Novak’s exploits. The British post-punk angles, tricky melodies, the slender remnants of their Redd Kross punk-pop, and an urgent, stinging now-times garage crackle all spike and lull at various turns, but it’s all Cheap Time. Meaning subtly transcendent things like a chirpy little guitar pluck in Same Surprise sounds like it could be a big horn section part, but Novak knows to keep things lean.

He is doing more echoing and/or overlapping knife fights with his vox, especially cool on the slicing Kill The Light. Sometimes you just wonder how the hell he does some of his vocal acrobatics, like the fast chanting at the choruses of the barreling buzzer, Slow Variety. And how, through all the apparent anger energy, he holds onto his wits, like following up that mantrastomp with the hooky Eight O’ Five, with its warbly background noise, dual guy/gal squawking chorus, and Ryan Sweeney’s always unfettered flailing on the skins. Yes, Cheap Time is very much a band. New bassist Jessica McFarland knows when to bounce around or thud-steady when needed, and sneers nearly as snotty with Novak on a chorus here or there, like on the snarling, Wire-like, Spark in the Chain. Modern Taste is some icy update of the Adverts’ bombed-out alley pop with a bubbling background rhythm. The incessant Krautrock-ish endings of nearly every song hammer home the chiseled-band bite.
If it seems we’re dropping loads of references here, it’s because such is the predicament of modern guitar r’n’r, so swamped by its history that it’s getting fuzzy in pop culture’s rearview mirror. Novak is good at sharpening that blur, like switching lenses during an eye exam. In Spark In The Chain, Novak explains, “It’s better to use when it’s already used/It’s better than rest, it’s better than food… it’s easy to lose.” Whatever “it” is, Cheap Time hasn’t lost it. Eight songs—in, out, cheap time indeed.
But in case these eight tunes ain’t enough (and they are), you can also nab Novak’s new solo album, Lemon Kid, also out this week on Trouble in Mind.