By Josh Ginsberg
“Ghost watching”. These are the first words uttered over a cold swell of cheap electronic organ. It radiates, glacial, from computer speakers. Piano chords hit every quarter note like a scene from a disaster movie. You know the scene. Explosions abound. Meteoroids are rendered meteorites. You hear nothing but a muted white noise hum, and then the next cosmic rock collides into some iconic American building. The air is disorienting. The guitars sound too faint. The mixing is flawed. But there’s a melody which is gripping. Thus begins “Sky,” the first track on Anna Bradley’s second EP of 2009. On Nervous, a forthcoming digital release of European record label Rack and Ruin Records, a sense of anxious heartache is always present. This song cycle consists of four songs tied together by ambient passages. Early downloads include a fifth bonus track.
The songs on Nervous sound like they were written by a teenaged Rivers Cuomo, if his favorite album was Loveless and his favorite song was “Swimmer” by Broken Social Scene. This young Rivers Cuomo is called Kipling. He has been making music on his own and with various collaborators for around a year now and is located in Northern California, via New York City via Toronto via Bombay. He suffers from melancholia and ennui and writes of the misgivings of his young life in a way similar to a young Rivers Cuomo around the time of Weezer’s Pinkerton. Kipling’s lyrical offerings to his muses are not replete with cryptic references or arcane details that feel too specific to be fabricated. He doesn’t paint as individual of a picture of his would-be lover as Rivers Cuomo does when he describes a lover who “has a tattoo and two pet snakes.” On Nervous, couplets of a prosaic ilk (in the sense of loose rhymes rather than a deficiency in imagination) are peppered only sparingly with random specifics, a recurring woman’s name and the occasional surreal image. When Pinkerton was released by a different band of a different caliber in a different time it was derided by many for its specificity and its overly intimate and mawkish lyricism. Critics felt they couldn’t relate to Pinkerton. Nervous will not suffer the same stigma partially because Anna Bradley isn’t signed to Geffen Records, but also in part because Kipling takes an approach opposite to Rivers Cuomo. While both writers focus on similar themes and emotions, they veer off disparately in their writing methods.
The lyrics to the chorus of “Sky” insist, “this is not a song for love.” However, love is clearly present throughout Nervous thematically. Kipling addresses an “Ilana” only a line later, but a majority of the verses describes a chilly, unnatural beachside and the fleeting of emotions of dreams. The lyricism is vague but distinctly embodies a teenaged, American-apparel clad youth. “At this party I met a girl,” Kipling muses before he laments, “and I fucked it up again.” This lyric is neither particularly artful nor original and as poetry it is less than adroitly composed. As a result of the fact that much of Kipling’s lyricism is ambiguous, there is more room for listeners to apply the situations Kipling sings of to their own lives. What guy or girl hasn’t dropped the ball in some capacity with some girl or guy at some party at some point in his/her life? The lyrics evoke that possibly inebriated, definitely embarrassing night that you never even mentioned to your friends but that they all remember happening. It is therein that Kipling’s lyricism is so effective. The best lyric on the entire EP comes from the second verse of closer “I Feel Like a Goddamn Zombie.” Kipling sings as angelically as he can muster, “I just want to be watching TV with you, drinking beer and passing out.”
Kipling is also a distinct and highly adept guitarist. Acoustic guitars which would sound at home on “Friday I’m in Love” slither bright and lithe, ushering in the spare chorus of “Sky,” which sheds the dense atmospheric instrumentation and resounds with great clarity when only two panned guitars play. Kipling’s guitar is the source which emanates the most warmth on the otherwise chilly EP. The electric guitars on the chorus of “Sky” are particularly pleasant. Cloudy, overdriven guitars in the vein of Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine are pitted against cheap organs throughout Nervous. The best moment of the title track is the guitar solo which closes the song. Kipling plays a mellow, shimmering solo, which consists mainly of arpeggios of simple, trebly guitar chords. The song gives way to an ambient swell of sound which eventually segues into “Cats”. “Cats” is very reminiscent of shoegaze and features walls of slowly decaying feedback a la Cymbals Eat Guitars’ “Share.” It is reprised from this winter’s Are You A Young Rebel? EP, where it appeared in a sparse, folksy form. Kipling’s guitar playing is at its pinnacle after the first verse of “I Feel Like a Goddamn Zombie.” This is the only straight-up, ripping solo on the EP. Kipling expresses his desire for “drinking beer and passing out” and plays a solo which echoes Stephen Malkmus or a somewhat clunky J Mascis.
The worst thing about the EP is its lo-fi recording. Nervous is not that lo-fi. It sits between a hi-fi album which could have a mainstream appeal and the more fashionable and abrasive style of lo-fi recording embodied by bands like Times New Viking of the shitgaze style. The EP’s songs stew in a miasma of droning strings and sustained notes. The drums sound faint and distant. But the skittering sixteenth-note beats are ebullient. Anna Bradley are the sort of band who would benefit from a hi-fi recording to showcase the band’s strengths as instrumentalists and to polish the already bright melodies further. Sometimes sounds seem buried, though they are never unintelligible. With a better recording Nervous might be one of the best straight-up-guitar-rock releases of the later half of the 00s.
Choruses are the crux of Nervous. The influence of modern pop bands such as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is clear, although Kipling writes better hooks. The chorus of “Sky” seeks to imitate its titular image aurally. The chorus of “Nervous” is desperate and frenetic, seeming earnestly shaken, but the catchiest chorus comes on the EP’s final track, “I Feel Like A Goddamn Zombie,” which contrary to its title is not sluggish or robotic at all. It emerges from a Zuma-esque riff-fest which lumbers slow and heavy. The pace quickens and far-off sounding hi-hats play sixteenth notes. A handful of voices sing together of unrealized ambition. The song returns to its Zuma riffs. The beat grows more loping. There are a few thoughtful chords, which ring with the incandescent luminescence that only a Fender Jaguar can provide. There are four of them and they snap forward like a striking viper. And then it happens. Kipling sings, “And I walk like the living dead and I talk as if I’m ooh-ooh-ooh.” These lyrics aren’t relatable. They mean nothing. It is catchier than “Drive My Car,” it is catchier than “Basket Case,” and it is a hell of a lot better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It is in the midst of brainless choruses, ones which distract from everything but the wind blowing through your car’s open window, tousling your hair, that Kipling’s genius flickers. The genius is fleeting. The chorus is reprised only once and Anna Bradley’s unidentified drummer misses the beat immediately preceding it. But when it hits you are allotted a handful of seconds of pure pop bliss and the drummer’s transgressions fade away in the grandeur of Anna Bradley’s mastery of melody.
When Kipling sings “I just want to be watching TV with you,” that hungry aching for innocent companionship is instantly evoked. Nervous is no Pinkerton, but its significantly better than any of Weezer’s past ten years worth of output. Though the specificity isn’t as chillingly meticulous as Cuomo’s circa ’96, Anna Bradley provide riffs and choruses, chord progressions and melodies, so hooky and immediately infectious that the details and nuances are completely unimportant.