That a young band can legitimize its name by appropriating a lyric or song title of an influence is nothing new: Spoon is named for a Can song; Radiohead, for the Talking Heads. Naming your band for a specific moment on a specific track of your adopted ancestor, though, is another level of homage. 2:54’s eponymous second comes about halfway through “A History of Bad Men” by proto-grunge group the Melvins, when a climactic percussive barrage gets mired in distortion-sludge and the bassline slows to a Metallica-esque crawl. If anything, you’ve got to give principal members Colette and Hannah Thurlow their due for that kind of homework. What makes this bit of band-lore interesting, though, is that 2:54 sound only peripherally like the Melvins; you could label the nebulous shared space on that Venn diagram “atmosphere.” Listening to 2:54, you can hear strains of darker rock, especially in the consistent, pulsing bass and guitar rhythms, but the ease with which the band subsumes that murky aesthetic, only to flaunt it like an exclamation point at just the right moment, describes a maturity and deftness we might only expect from a band that’s already spent a couple of albums grasping at identity.
That sureness recalls the holistic, moody sound of the xx, a kind of pleasant déjà vu. Lead single “You’re Early,” which has been floating around since February, features the repetition, circular structure and control of negative space that characterized the best tracks of XX, though the replacement of more engineered beats with the louder presence of Alex Robins on drums lends the song a kind of urgency missing from the nocturnal xx shuffle. Rather than navigating the course of a relationship on the brink, the track’s lyrics describe separation; the chorus aches “I just want to be close to…”. Washed away in looped backing vocals, the “you” is absent but understood, a culled surplus.
There’s a welcome degree of flexibility in 2:54’s composition, too. “Scarlet,” the centerpiece of the band’s EP release last November, threads a heavy, doomsday bassline with the kind of needling guitar melody Kirk Hammett might’ve written if he were sipping lean while recording “Enter Sandman.” On the other hand, “Easy Undercover” and New Wave-ish “A Salute” both give their chords some air to breath, pushing the songs closer to friendlier pop territory. The bass drone of “Sugar” finds Colette with a breathy, deep almost-snarl, more Carrie Brownstein than Dee Dee.
Like “You’re Early” and “Scarlet,” penultimate song “Ride” demonstrates how effective the Thurlows and their backers can be, even at their most formulaic. The prescribed bass and percussion, the metronomic rhythm guitar chop, the insistent lead melody, the ghostly, reverb-heavy vocals: By track nine, you’ve heard it already, but it hasn’t gotten old. For each metallic riff, there’s a pop-leaning counterweight, and though it’s a balance that thrives more on discomfort than ease, that push and pull never feels burdened. 2:54 is above all a lean record, stripped of excess, a bare but muscular offering that pulls only sparingly from the crunch in its bloodline. With nothing wasted, it leaves you wanting nothing more.