No Age and the Inevitably "Mature" Everything in Between
No Age's new album begins with a kick-drum pulse thudding with industrial-grade distortion, a steady pounding somewhere in between an urgent knock at the door and a jackhammer. But it's a fake-out. The guitar drops in, and it's slight and pensive, undercutting the initial intensity. The melody loops, guitarist Randy Randall adds a distorted figure, drummer/singer Dean Spunt starts singing, someone plays some glassy keyboard notes, but the song never really explodes. In fact, nothing on Everything in Between ever really explodes.
Eruption isn't a requirement for a successful rock song, of course, but it has been a defining feature of much of No Age's best stuff, from individual songs to the shape of entire albums. No Age's previous records were animated by a tension between, on the one hand, rock muscle and pop sweets, and on the other, ambient noise. Skuzzy but essentially conventional songs would come bursting out from passages of washed-out guitar drone, with the effect of making them seem all the more barreling. The same structure would play out within songs, as with the teasing build and release of Noun's "Eraser," whose ascending guitars seem to hit a false summit three times over, prolonging the tension each time, before the song eventually blows its top.
There's nothing quite that shape on Everything in Between, but what's surprising is how comfortable No Age sound without their old trick. To be sure, there is distortion on this album, and there are choruses that hit harder than their preceding verses. There are even ambient passages—the 1:29 "Katerpillar," which functions more as an intermission between sides than anything else, and the back-to-back "Dusted" and "Positive Amputation," which serve to slow things down as the album approaches its coda. But if the topography of previous albums would be a jagged series of peaks and shallow valleys, this album would be a nice flat plateau. And while No Age's songs have always been at heart more or less pop songs and punk songs and combinations of the two—only tarred and feathered with varying layers of looping guitar-pedal effects and feedback—here, the band seems more content than ever to play them as straight songs.
Advance single "Glitter" soars and sears, but only gently, with Spunt singing in a dulled, drawling almost-monotone. Underneath the fuss, you can imagine an acoustic-guitar version, and maybe even long for it a little. "Valley Hump Crash" is jangly and bright, with Spunt singing ("Catalina, ohhh") in a pinched, boyish whine that favorably recalls Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, backed by woozy "woo-ooh" background vocals. "Common Heat" is perhaps the heart of the album, a strummy, dingy ballad about the soul-crushing impossibility of getting up and putting your shirt on to go to work.
If there's one thing all this points to, from the more mellow and traditional song structures to the glum workaday lyrics, it's that dreaded watchword maturity. (And No Age are positively ancient in all-ages terms.) Like Sonic Youth before them, No Age gave themselves a band name that all but invites critical potshots about their shelf life. (Fun fact: Some copies of No Age's 2009-closing EP Losing Feeling came with a zine that reprinted a correspondence between a young Randall and SY's Lee Ranaldo.) Sonic Youth, both in name and practice, suggest that making noise can keep you young, that you're only as old as you sound, and No Age carry their torch, even if their name gives off more of an air of indifference, maybe a desire to stand outside of traditional old/young binaries, not "nothing but a number" so much as "who's counting, anyway?" (Fun fact #2: No Age took their name not from SY but from an old SST compilation, although Ranaldo did have a song on it.) That Everything in Between sounds as grim as it does hopeful suggests that growing up creeps in even when you're studiously not paying attention.
As Sonic Youth before them have proved, mellowing trends aren't always linear or tied to age, and they certainly aren't immune to reversal. Bands can stall and sidetrack and double back on themselves. And for now, No Age do this slow-simmer thing surprisingly well.
And the album does eventually explode, technically. Midway through album closer "Chem Trails," a midtempo number with an easy backbeat; smooth, sustained electric-guitar notes; and a vocal duet that sounds ripped from an old Beat Happening record, you hear a string of firecrackers popping off low in the mix. It would feel like a gag—"You wanted fireworks?"—if Everything in Between weren't still so satisfying even without bigger pyrotechnics.