In my experience, many of the greatest rock albums are unlikeable upon first listen: GBV’s Bee Thousand, Big Star’s Third, Slint’s Tweez, the second Neutral Milk Hotel. The source of their greatness is their off-putting originality and weirdness, the rule-breaking and defied expectations.
Your first impression of Lavender House is likely to be, What the fuck was that? By the second listen, you’ll think, Hey, this actually rocks! And after the third, you’ll be parked at the Shaw’s in Bath, tears rolling down your face like a fool. (Again, in my experience.)
Lavender House is this kind of great rock album. You’ve never heard anything like it. You need to hear it now, and then at least twice again.
Cousins Quinn Farwell and Noah Grenier-Farwell started the band in Quinn’s bedroom up in Windsor, a small town east of Augusta, about four years ago. Both are songwriters and singers who play guitar and drums. Their first two full-lengths — a self-titled demo release in 2016 and 2018’s amiwrong? — indicated to those with ears to hear it that brilliance was afoot. But the sound quality was ass, and it was just the two of them swapping instruments.
For Lavender, they used real recording studios, and their songs are fleshed out by two new bandmates: one simply credited as Josh, on “Rippin’ lead guitar,” and Simi, on “Rippin’ bass guitar.” About half the tracks on Lavender appeared in rougher form on previous releases. At last, we hear them in full bloom.
There are elements of all the aforementioned masterworks on Lavender — the buried hooks of Bee Thousand, the murky beauty of Third, Jeff Mangum’s unbridled vocals and Slint’s progressive sludge. But amiright? defies comparison. (OK, “Space Odyssey” does sound a lot like Brenda, the Portland indie-rock trio of the early Teens. But aside from that, I got nothin’.)
“Rodeo” is the perfect opener. It starts gently and builds into a giant refrain, then disintegrates and does it all again. “And when mama breaks I want to take like a break,” Noah belts out in the middle, “I want to take back a taste, my mama, take back a taste.” My guess is that’s referencing some heavy domestic dysfunction, but it’s not the lyrics that punched me in the gut, it’s that voice. It’s the tone people who don’t shout much get when they shout. Not the roar of the unrepentant asshole (looking at you, Rollins). It’s the half-cry of a wronged and angry young man, delivered here with a rawness and emotional honesty that cannot be faked. It can be veiled, as it is here, with indirection, but it will inevitably kick over something buried inside you, and then the tears will spill out.
The next track, “Assabet,” proceeds to run your sodden heart through the ringer, repeatedly. “Why won’t you say what you said to me?” Noah asks, and he’ll do so again, six more times, pleadingly, then furiously, apparently imploring a childhood friend to speak up and stand up to someone. There’s more domestic shit in the air — “What is really that bad / talk about your mom and dad / You can’t” — but it ends on a note of bittersweet defiance: “Brush it off, you still don’t care / ’cuz you can’t.” The song’s powerful structure, bolstered by swelling organ notes courtesy of guest Greg Nahabedian, make it a standout on an album full of favorites, including the aching “Listen to that Horn” and “This Sucks/This Is The Worst Part,” in which car trouble is compounded by more mom trouble.
The numbers on which Quinn takes over lead vocals, like “headwillexplode” and “Right Eye,” are sonically denser and more difficult to digest. There’s melodicism in there, it just sneaks up on you more slowly, because they’re unconventional, “opaque melodies that would bug most people,” as Captain Beefheart quipped. The chaotic “Ariana Casserole” and the instrumental guitar workout “BestRestNJ” keep you guessing as Lavender’s 11 tracks unfold. Even the sequencing is flawless.
The closer, “Gone,” returns to surer rock footing, with Noah back on the mic. “Alone again I know it’s only who I am / One less thing you can understand,” he sings, before the song briefly wanders off, “drunk on a whim,” into the snow, then revs up to crush the ending.
amiright? can be confounding, but ultimately they can be understood, or at least appreciated. There’s humor amid the pathos, though the dark underbelly of life in rural Maine — the boredom, prudery, booze and abuse — keeps peeking out. A couple lines from the first song sum this up nicely: “It’s time to go to that old rodeo and watch pigs being slapped with sticks / Your mind’s a waste, you’re pacing the whole place, waiting to kill something too.”
amiright? plays Sun Tiki Studios in Portland on Feb. 8.