“Bum bum bum bum-bum-bum bum bum / Bum bum-bum-bum bum bum,” sings 2nd Grade’s Peter Gill onomatopoetically on “Beat of the Drum,” the sixth track off the five-piece band’s new album, Easy Listening. It’s moments like these, where 2nd Grade lets the rhythm speak for itself, that make for the most amusing listens. There are plenty of these on Easy Listening, the band’s third LP in four years, which proves yet another jovial entry into the contemporary power-pop canon. With the vintage flair of yesteryear’s rock and roll and today’s wry humor, the supergroup of some of Philly’s finest indie-rock stylists have crafted an adventure of an album, traversing the highs of rockstardom, the lows of celebrity loneliness and a pervasive sense of ennui that can only be cut by righteous riffs.
Easy Listening is imbued with emotion, longing especially. From the initial high of rebellious celebrity on “Cover of Rolling Stone,” 2nd Grade show how life, even for youth culture idols, is full of perpetual yearning. Lead single “Strung Out on You” is dedicated to loving something detrimental with the zeal of an addict, no matter how dangerous that love might be. “Kramer in LA” brims with humor—the reference to Kramer jet-setting to Los Angeles to pursue Hollywood dreams is comically specific—but the genuine, Randy Newman-esque emotions pouring from Gill’s pen/Kramer’s head tie in too well with the turmoil experienced by anyone pursuing a new life while missing an old one. Desire for a kind ear can be found in “Planetarium”; the line “I made a list of everything in existence / But I still thought that something was missing” offers a quiet, devastating languor as Gill’s voice races.
That said, Easy Listening is still awful fun, made more memorable with a heaping helping of riffs. “Beat of the Drum” is thumping and propulsive, all while blasting as loud as feasible. The sentimental melodies on “Teenage Overpopulation” are matched by an inherent humor on lyrics like, “Too many teens buying stems and seeds at premium prices.” At times, that fun is bolstered with unflinching love. “Me and My Blue Angels” reflects that joy brilliantly in a track Gill dedicates to his bandmates, folks he’s learned to trust with everything he’s got. At other times, 2nd Grade dial back the fidelity to add a little extra texture. “Poet in Residence” offers a fuzzy, lo-fi rendition with plenty of muffled cowbell for some ‘60s patina.
Easy Listening spans 16 tracks, some clocking in at just over a minute while the most luxuriant reach three-and-a-half, well beyond the median for a historically punchy band. The textures vary slightly, but at the end of the day, 2nd Grade does what they know best: casually serious, vocal-forward guitar pop. The consistency can inspire, but much of the second half of the record, post-“Teenage Overpopulation,” can feel undercooked. Songs like “Keith and Telecaster’’ and “Controlled Burn” hold water on their own, but at least one track would benefit from getting the lo-fi treatment for textural change—something to break up the sonic similarities that are sometimes too consistent to showcase what the band is capable of. Without some more variety, the album risks blending together in what can feel like one long, amorphous track. Gill sounds aware of this challenge on “Hands Down” when he acknowledges: “The back of the B-side is where we belong.”
And as catchy as “Strung Out On You” is with its handclapped beat and smiley vocals, one has to wonder if the addiction metaphor is worthwhile. The track’s guitar groove and dynamic vocal delivery make for an ideal earworm, but the lyrics “Give me something / Be my pick-me-up / I’m strung out on you” are tired and the addiction references are reductive turns of phrase. Rhythmically genius but lyrically off, the song is a conflicting listen. But what 2nd Grade achieve on the song, and on Easy Listening at large, is another shiny homage to a vintage pop methodology, manicured for the 21st century with a wit and delivery that remains central to the 2nd Grade brand. Easy Listening is an expression that delights like a homemade grilled cheese: It satisfies a simple need with warmth and sincerity.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly