Quarterbacks empties its toolbox within the opening seconds of its self-titled full-length debut: a trebly guitar, a tight rhythm section whose home tempo lies somewhere in the Hüsker Dü range, a single subdued vocal. There’s a dizzy little thrill in how deftly the three members carry off a pop song at punk speed, and a pang of tension in lyrics that pass almost too quickly to grasp: “When you said you loved me, did you just mean you missed me? … Maybe the next time you visit home, I shouldn’t know.” And then, just as an outline of the story and its players begins to take shape, the song is over.
The way they ricochet from one brief, blistering mini-opus into another, it’s easy to imagine singer/guitarist Dean Engle, bassist Tom Christie and drummer Max Restaino bumping the Minutemen in their tour van. But as a document, Quarterbacks is better considered in light of its contemporaries — or, more to the point, two fertile East Coast music communities whose collective ethos could be pegged as “punk, or something like it.”
Alone and with the band, Engle has gigged hard in the loosely defined New York-area DIY movement that orbits venues like Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, artists like the multidisciplinary Epoch collective and labels like New Jersey’s Double Double Whammy (which issued early versions of the songs heard here on a pair of 2014 cassettes). Two hours away in Philadelphia, producer Kyle Gilbride has spent the past few years shaping the sound of breakthrough albums by Waxahatchee, Radiator Hospital and his own Swearin’, coaxing each band’s sweet side to play nice with its hard edges. Gilbride recorded Quarterbacks in one marathon session, and he matches the band’s dogged consistency with control — particularly of Restaino’s hard-gallop beats, which are crisply captured to preserve their alarming precision.
Here’s what’s really nice about these songs: As much as they benefit from sharing air with the rising talent of Brooklyn and Philly, they don’t sound much like either place. Quarterbacks hails from New Paltz, N.Y., an impulse drive away from the big city but well removed from its bustle and hype. And, while the choices may be fewer and the stakes more quotidian for an artist in a small college town, human drama is always there to be felt and observed. “Knicks,” the album’s lone ballad, nails the pivot: “Why don’t you come over, make some dinner / We can mute the Knicks game, put on a record / Head over to Mobil, pick out a sixer / Pretend you don’t miss her, not anymore.” Love and hurt can be epic and life-cracking, but they can also be routine. Once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of that.
First Listen: Quarterbacks, 'Quarterbacks'