Punchy outlet for serene melodies
Indie rock has been regurgitating itself again and again for roughly the last twenty years; every new “revival” of a subgenre is just a marker for whichever era’s wave of influence is crashing at any particular moment. Most contemporary indie rock acts tow a fine line between offering original and unique reinventions of classic sounds or just another regurgitation. Tancred, the main project of singer-songwriter and former Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, luckily lands on the right side of the divide, offering much more than just a regurgitation of the project’s ’90s alt-rock influences. The latest studio album under the name Tancred, Nightstand, offers a punchy outlet for Abbott’s melodic guitar tone and catchy lyricism.
In the introductory “Song One,” Abbott promises honesty and openness, delivering a series of songs exploring love and lust as a wayward youth. Nothing too tantalizing or personally revealing throughout the album, which makes Abbott’s promise of “no fabrication” more curious than anything else. The first track hints at the classical flourishes that appear across a number of tracks. Those moments mesh beautifully with Abbott’s voice, the most impressive tool in her repertoire. Even the more mediocre songs are elevated through Abbott’s voice and her serene and soothing vocal melodies. Abbott’s voice is especially front and center on Nightstand, having diverged from the Weezer-influenced guitar crunch of her 2016 album, Out of the Garden, going for a softer guitar groove throughout. While propping up her voice is a winning idea, some of the tracks off Nightstand almost beg for that same crunch, particularly the back half of the record, which plods along in some places.
The kind of indie rock Tancred specializes in is akin to that of Courtney Barnett, although without the sardonic wit, and much less Australian. Abbott plays for a stronger emotional appeal through interesting metaphors. The songwriting falters, however, at certain points in the album, which lead to some of Abbott’s biggest miscalculations. After the promissory “Song One,” Abbott cuts through the vibe she created with the poppiest track on the record, “Queen of New York,” which also contains the most basic love/lust lyrics on the album and the most egregious Barnett-like sound. Its placement makes some sense, as Abbott essentially moves from upbeat positivity to downward, declining depression through the track listing, “Queen…” being the most positive and energetic song in the album, but it’s too jarring a shift from the first song and a bad introduction to what the album contains.
Both “Apple Tree Girl” and “Hot Star” actually get the album rolling, both of which allude to drug use and highlight Abbott’s songwriting abilities, even if the refrain from “Hot Star:” “You’re killing me but I’m ready to go” grates upon repetition. The next track, “Clipping,” is the best song on the album and a powerful emotional peak. It’s mournful guitar perfectly couples with Abbott’s most interesting lyrics. It’s so strong, unfortunately, the rest of the album seems to slowly deflate after. That is not to say it’s a dramatic dip in quality, in fact, it’s hard to say Nightstand has a bad song on it at all – it’s a solid record, but a good number of the tracks almost have something missing. “Something Else,” is a great, catchy song and another highlight for Abbott’s voice, but definitely demands more of that Weezer-crunch. “Underwear,” on the other hand, contains the worst vocal melody on the record, as well as the least sympathetic lyrics. The break-up track includes the line “kissed a demon,” and seems, let’s say, over the top. Admittedly, there are a number of allusions to physical abuse, but Abbott does not lean into the abusive aspects of the relationship and instead leaves what stands as a petty diatribe that feels unjustified to an audience.
“Just You,” is the third and thankfully final example of Abbott’s miscalculations, with some questionable lyrics (stretching the metaphor of her romantic object as a shirt that’s tearing) and even more questionable allusions (didn’t we all agree Taylor Swift murdered all songs based around Romeo and Juliet references?). Following that, the last three tracks all flow thematically into each other to develop Abbott’s growing despair. “Strawberry Selfish” is a slow but pleasant lament, followed by “Reviews,” relating a review to a significant other’s opinion, elevating the latter over the former and definitely hurting this reviewer’s feelings (Editor’s Note: and the feelings of all us over at mxdwn), but has a smashing melody. Speaking of which, the last track, “Rowing,” has some stellar melodies while conveying a romantic trip through Holland and it’s depressing aftermath. It’s a great wrap-up to an album that explores relationships and their failures. “It’s hard to end, it’s hard to end,” but in spite of her miscalculations, Abbott has produced another solid solo record that brings her beautiful voice to the forefront.