Lo Tom Explore Stadium Rock Sounds on LP2
For all their indie cred, the quartet level up with commercial rock giants on second albumMusic Reviews Lo Tom
When singer/songwriter David Bazan started doing living room tours back in 2008, he quickly proved that radical downsizing was a viable way forward for musical performance. Long before a global health crisis forced us all into re-scaling our priorities, Bazan was able to generate the same power as a full arena production with just his acoustic guitar, a stock of diligently crafted songs and some low-key stage banter. Utterly unpretentious, Bazan would show up to fulfill his duties with an air more like a carpenter or plumber than music legend. And yet, he could envelope a room of, say, 30 people in a grip of quiet intimacy that felt somehow as charged as any “real” show that etched itself in your memory as a life-changing event—or, for that matter, any club appearance by Pedro The Lion, the fabled indie rock outfit Bazan founded in 1995, disbanded in 2006 and revived in 2017.
Along with the wider proliferation of house shows, it seems like small was well on its way to becoming the new big. What strange timing, then, that the sophomore effort by Lo Tom finds Bazan sounding right at home within arrangements that recapture the grandeur of Big Rock. If there’s anyone suited to maintain a sense of discreet poise while the music around him practically explodes in bombast, it’s Bazan, whose earnest soul-searching is retrofitted with a shiny new scaffolding courtesy of one-time Pedro The Lion/Headphones bandmate TW Walsh, along with guitarist Jason Martin and drummer Trey Many. Together, the quartet forms a casual supergroup of sorts, with so many different overlapping projects between them (Starflyer 59, The Soft Drugs, Bon Voyage, etc.) that it takes a family-tree diagram to chart them all.
At times, Bazan has presented Pedro The Lion as a band entity, but his creative ownership has always been obvious. Not so with LP2, which marks the first time Bazan’s talents have truly blended within the collaborative machinations of an actual band (outside of his work with another side group named Overseas), but the team-player effect is most pronounced on LP2. This time, the songwriting fell mostly in the hands of Walsh and Martin, who were responsible for about 50% of the record’s guitar riffs each while Walsh oversaw the production.
Walsh—a multi-instrumentalist and potent songwriter in his own right—flexes his skills as a sonic auteur by crossing the gritty guitar wash of former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould’s ’90s power pop group Sugar with the polish of peak commercial-period Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at their most MTV-friendly. In fact, album opener “Start Payin’” makes an entrance like a Corvette roaring up to your doorstep blaring Petty’s classic “Refugee”—the central riff is just as uncomplicated and unforgettable, only with the guitar fuzz cranked up to 10 and some synths thrown in for good measure, showcasing Walsh’s uncanny ability to blur the line between rawness and accessibility. Bazan, meanwhile, has always professed a love for classic rock giants like Petty and Neil Young but eschewed their larger-than-life presence in favor of understatement and relatability instead.
Without help, he might have come across as garish attempting LP2’s stadium-rock gestures on his own, but boy does he have the right team to pull it off here. Sure, several songs on the new album appear to share the same compositional DNA as 2004-era Pedro The Lion material like “The Fleecing” and “Keep Swinging,” but LP2 drops Bazan’s deep baritone and introspective outlook onto a much bigger stage. And though Bazan’s compassion-soaked observations cut-through as starkly as ever (“There’s always someone above you who forgets how it feels / to be the one underneath hanging on by a fingernail” he wails on “Suck It Up”), he actually sounds like he’s having fun, or at least comfortable in his outsized musical surroundings.
You can practically picture the soundstage, fog and lighting that would’ve been used on a video shoot for a song like “No Margin of Error”—a power ballad of sorts, only without its claws removed and no added fluff, if you can imagine that. And speaking of MTV, it’s hard to imagine that the high-pitched “show must go on” backing vocal on “The Show” wasn’t intended as a self-conscious nod to Sting’s iconic cameo backup on the Dire Straits classic “Money for Nothing.” It’s also hard to think of many other examples that match LP2’s balance of vitality with what once would have been easily recognizable as commercial instincts.
Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, it was already an open question whether the mythology of traditional rock music would have the same cultural hold on us moving forward. LP2 shows us that the question is moot as long as an artist’s intentions are sincere. Strangely, for all their indie pedigree, the members of Lo Tom don’t play the scale of the album as an ironic gag. And somehow, Bazan manages to look less self-conscious playing to the cheap seats than a figure like Bono, which might’ve been unthinkable before LP2, and yet here we are.
The only knock on the album is that, at 25 minutes long, you have to wonder whether Lo Tom left anything on the table—dropping “LP” into the title must be something of a joke. Then again, if you listen from start to finish, the song sequence doesn’t exactly lack closure when it concludes with the infernal “In A Van,” which allows us to enjoy Bazan’s trademark mournfulness backed by an AC/DC-esque riffing. Perhaps it’s only fitting that, even when emulating chart-toppers, this group of players kept their ambitions modest.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He feels quite lucky to be hangin’ in there and still have the opportunity to expound on music. He hopes you’re well. You can find him on Twitter @sabyrk_.