Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Catharsis comes heavy and often in the raucous-yet-refined rock sound of Cymbals Eat Guitars. In “Finally,” the rousing opener to the band’s fourth album Pretty Years, singer-guitarist Joseph D’Agostino takes up a position out past his comfort zone, rasping in reach of a feeling. “If this is infinite,” he howls, with wonder in his voice, “the center is everything / dilated and smiling.” Guitars with the treble turned up high churn around him while drums thwack and punch, all in pursuit of the revelation that contentedness can be more transforming when evasive and hard-won.
This is a band for whom sweet nothings tend toward pronouncements like “I’m so out of sync and you’re out of sync with me” — an observation of fondness in “Have A Heart,” which D’Agostino has called his first real, honest-to-goodness love song. “I have a heart I wanna put to use,” he promises a few lines later, before making further good on his ambition in eight more songs.
From their home in base in Staten Island, the most distant and remote borough of New York City, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ members have trafficked in a loose and effusive sound that recalls indie- and college-rock aesthetics informed by bands from The Replacements to Archers Of Loaf to Beach Slang and others who peer back to the 1980s and ’90s with fresh eyes and ears. Pretty Years, produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, The War On Drugs, Swans, et al), adds range with colorful keyboards and accentuation like sax lines that give “Wish” an appealingly sleazy street-walking ’70s Springsteen vibe. “Close” somehow calls up associations with both Fleetwood Mac and Of Montreal, while “Dancing Days” quiets down and then loudens up for a fateful but stirring singalong refrain: “Goodbye to my dancing days / Goodbye to the friends who fell away / Goodbye to my pretty years.” (D’Agostino has something else in mind, thanks to a change in either perspective or age: “I’ll stay in tonight / It’s TV time.”)
Other songs touch on the fading glories of life on the road (“4th Of July, Philadelphia [Sandy]”), a dog named Satan (“Beam”) and the weary need to keep on keeping on (“Well”), all with a mix of poetic impressionism and directness. In “Well,” D’Agostino, lying in bed while just awake, sings, “Feel like I’d do anything / To escape the silver flames / Licking since I was a kid.” Whatever those silver flames are exactly, they clearly torment him and make him unwell — but there’s just as clearly beauty in them, too.