NE-HI 2014 self-titled debut was cookie dough—delicious, particularly tasty when drunk, but undeniably raw. The band took a lo-fi, ‘60s garage rock sound and sprinkled in some chips from the ‘80s college underground, resulting in laconic, euphoric jams whose scant words were not nearly as important as creating a visceral groove and reverb-laden guitar-scape. It was the essence of a sweaty basement show in a bottle; while the record itself showed promise, you really needed to experience it live to understand the full effect.
On their sophomore effort Offers, the band shows their maturation as songwriters and studio artists, and as a result has produced a record that stands on its own as a statement of the band’s raison d’etre. The Dionysian urge to jam out is still there in full force, particularly in the extensive intros on tracks like “Drag” and “Prove,” but the sound is more polished and the songs adhere more closely (though not uniformly) to traditional notions of structure.
The guitars of Jason Balla and Mikey Wells retain their respective trademark pluckiness and jangle, but they aren’t drowning in reverb the way they were three years ago, giving Offers a harder, more professional edge. Their interplay, while far looser than, say, the rigid lockstep of The Strokes, flies seamlessly through the transitions that pepper NE-HI’s extended workouts, bestowing dynamism upon songs whose underlying chord structures are simple and unchanging.
“Palm of Hand,” the exquisite and rather long (by NE-HI standards) opener, is among the chief beneficiaries of Balla and Wells’ ability to shift gears smoothly. It never feels like the band is lurching from section to section. Equally deserving of credit on that front are Alex Otake’s rock-steady drumming and James Weir’s leaping bass lines, which function more like countermelodies. Weir plays an especially large role in laying down an infectious bass groove on “Prove,” the album’s most danceable track.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Offers is the clear difference between the tracks where Balla sings lead vocals and those where Wells takes over the mic. Balla-driven songs—”Palm of Hand,” “Offers,” “Prove,” “Drag,” “Every Dent” and “Stay Young”—tend more toward the dominant sound from NE-HI’s first album: heavy focus on the instrumentals and lyrical reticence intent on portraying a feeling rather than telling a story.
The other five tracks, piloted by Wells, are more verbose, more structured and more expansive. Take the rare ballad from the band “Everybody Warned You,” for example. It’s a little difficult to square the song with the rest of the album at first—the adrenaline rush of “Drag,” which follows it, feels like a triumphant return—but Wells’ lonely, plaintive words fit Offers’ overall wintry feel. And Balla’s guitar lead doesn’t so much cut through the song as it holds everything together. Meanwhile, “Buried on the Moon” proves to be a lyrical highlight of the album, with Wells musing about the challenges of finding artistic vision and maintaining passion under creative pressure, and “Don’t Wanna Know Ya” has NE-HI echoing the Stones-ian sound of fellow Chicago rockers Twin Peaks.
Offers is a delectable batch of baked goods, and an improvement upon their comparatively undercooked debut. While NE-HI’s recorded works might never match the ecstatic fervor of their live performances, this album is proof of a band that is growing up and is prepared to bring more deserved attention to the Windy City’s ever-electrifying rock scene.