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Conversations about music tend to focus on intrinsic factors. Are the lyrics good (or at least not noticeably terrible)? Is the melody catchy? Will the beats move my hips? Will the guitar tones cause my head to slam into a brick wall (in a good way)? But a lot of what makes music great or not great is not intrinsic, it’s extrinsic. Am I hearing this while positioned in an environment that is pleasing to me? Has this music aided in the search for laughs, adventures, and/or exciting encounters with attractive people? Does what I’m hearing have associations with the opposite of the aforementioned attributes?
As a lifelong resident of the upper midwest — a region that is frigid and snowbound for seven months, humid and mosquito-ridden for four and a half months, and absolutely perfect for two weeks — I’m a big proponent of seasonal listening. There are just certain albums that belong to particular seasons. The first Bon Iver record, For Emma, Forever Ago, is obviously best appreciated in winter, whereas the collected works of Elliott Smith are reserved for the fall, and OutKast’s Stankonia and Def Leppard’s Hysteria can only be played after Memorial Day.
The Brooklyn-based power-pop quartet Charly Bliss appear to also appreciate seasonal listening theory. In 2017, Charly Bliss released its full-length debut, Guppy, which immediately made them an adored band among two seemingly different but secretly aligned constituencies: 1) Nervous millennials and Gen-Zers who enjoy hearing their profound anxiety shouted back at them in the form of perfectly constructed pop; 2) Aging Gen-Xers who still love late-’90s alt-rock, particularly gooey bubble-grunge deep cuts that appeared on the soundtracks for movies like American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You.
When critics try to explain the appeal of Charly Bliss, they tend to use the word “sugar” a lot. They also describe the impressive dexterity of Eva Hendricks’ voice, which has the ability to sound immediately exciting in a pleasingly plastic-y sort of way, while also hinting at a deep reservoir of repressed melancholy. Which is to say, she has the perfect voice for zippy, punk-y power pop.
However, the simplest way to convey what is so pleasurable about Charly Bliss is to call them spring music. This is what you want to play the first Saturday of the year when you can drive around with rolled-down windows. It’s what you hear in your head when you can drink a cocktail on a patio once the temperature hits 50 degrees. It sounds like how flip-flops feel on your toes.
And I think that Charly Bliss — or at least the people who put out their albums — know this. Guppy came out in April 2017, precisely the time when it should have been released. And now, the band’s second record, Young Enough, is out on Friday. And it sounds unsurprisingly great, utilizing the climate as deftly as Vampire Weekend wields samples from The Thin Red Line.
Young Enough has been billed by Charly Bliss as the “dark” follow-up to Guppy, while also being the slicker and lusher “step up” record. This is a dichotomy that works well with power pop. After all, what is a lyric such as “nobody likes you when you’re 23?” if not a simultaneous acknowledgment of existential realities and the sort of epic earworm upon which epic sellout moves are made?
Hendricks has a similar talent for transforming the absolute worst thoughts and memories that spin in her head into hooky anthems that implant themselves inside everyone else’s heads. There must be something perversely satisfying about writing a song like “Chat Room,” which Hendricks has said is about her own experience with sexual assault, and turning the song’s mantra-like denunciations (“I’m not gonna save you / no I’m not gonna take you”) into an insinuating, chat-along rock climax powered by springy guitars and disco rhythms. While Hendricks has called “Chat Room” a “colossal ‘f*ck you,'” she sings it with a fury that’s tempered with the triumph of successfully turning trauma into potent pop.
Hendricks pulls off this magic trick time and again on Young Enough. On the album’s best song, “Capacity,” Hendricks lets herself off the hook for not being perfect over a delectable synth sprawl and more sinewy “Heart Of Glass” guitars. It’s such a delicious confection that you almost miss the traces of arsenic that Hendricks sprinkles throughout. “I can barely keep myself afloat when I’m not saving you,” she sings brightly, like it’s not the saddest confession you’ve heard all day.
Above all Charly Bliss are masters of the least fashionable of all punk-rock attributes: craft. After 2014’s Soft Serve EP, the band spent years refining Guppy, even ditching a previously recorded version of the album. But while Guppy retained a scrappy, budget-conscious aesthetic, Young Enough has the benefit of big-time rock production courtesy of Joe Chiccarelli, a multiple Grammy-award winning producer who has midwifed scores of indie heroes — including the White Stripes, the Shins, and the Strokes — from the indie world to the big time.
You can hear that expertise shine through in “The Truth,” which sounds like Tragic Kingdom-era No Doubt with dashes of Gary Numan and XTC. This song has everything: A rubbery bassline, jangly guitars, gorgeous synth tones, and a big chorus that unfolds like a short story: “I’m alive but I’m dead inside, burying my face against the wall / Silent scathing smile / the family planning aisle / I can feel my sanity dissolve.”
Charly Bliss might still be underdogs slugging it away on the club circuit, but Young Enough sounds like it was made under the assumption that Hendricks is already a superstar. If there’s any justice, she’ll eventually get there for real.
Young Enough is out 5/10 via Barsuk Records. Get it here.