Listening to Nothing Hurts, I feel like it absolutely had to come out on Sub Pop, like it would be out of place on any other label. Because Male Bonding’s debut album sounds exciting and unpredictable in the way that Nirvana’s Bleach must have sounded to people back in 1989 — as if it is both part of a burgeoning movement and also light years ahead of it.
Because you could, at least in part, lump Male Bonding in with a new trend toward lo-fi garage rock. But unlike whoever you’d like to pull from that pack — No Age or Harlem or any other scuzzy rocker you can think of — Male Bonding sound wholly untethered on this record. Any of those other bands sound so controlled, so downright tame next to this London outfit. Their fuzzy sound — though clearer than in earlier singles — sounds so organic, as if it is a part of their sound instead of just a flimsy filter for it.
And the guys also play with a staggering inertia. Guitars crunch out chunky riffs while drums stomp out beats or stop on a dime to turn the song in a new direction. Songs like “Year’s Not Long” and “Nothing Seems to Hurt” speed along at a blistering, barely-in-control pace, but the tracks never quite run away from these guys. Instead they brace themselves with deep hooks and rich vocal melodies, so even as the track speeds away they (and we) never lose our place in all the fuzzy noise.
It’s not all brute force, either. The guys can come at straight (albeit still noisy as hell) power-pop on “All Things This Way,” or refashion an industrial, Radiohead-esque bass line into tumbling surf rock on “Weird Feelings.” Which is all to say that these guys, though they deal in their own brand of thundering punk rock, are not one-trick ponies.
Nothing Hurts distinguishes itself by never quite defining itself. Is it garage rock? Or punk rock? Or lo-fi? In all three cases, the answer is probably. But those are some pretty weak tags to throw on a record that does as much as this one does. The album is a cohesive whole, but these guys never attack your ears in the same way twice, and each subtle shift — from the punishing thud of “TUFF” to the hazy overcast feel of “Franklin” — works as well as the last. Only closer “Worse to Come” — a mostly acoustic number featuring Vivian Girls — feels a bit out of place, more like a tacked on B-side than an actual part of the album.
But that only speaks to how great the rest of the record is, and how confidently these guys stretch out over the course of it. The energy with which they play is both irony-free and seemingly bottomless. And if there’s only one thing the other lo-fi upstarts can take from Male Bonding, it’s this: It’s OK to play with enthusiasm. Oh, and also, it helps to have an album with 12 fantastic songs, the way the do on Nothing Hurts.