If there’s a line in Uneasy Laughter, the new record from L.A. rock trio-turned-synth-pop group Moaning, that summarizes the project neatly from start to finish, it’s the first line on “What Separates Us”: “Life is plagiarism / A thought thought before / What is your own / You’re not sure anymore.” This is both a true statement—it’s 2020, and the odds of having a notion no one else in human history has had are slim—and an irritating cop-out from a band that’s nicked their style from the 1980s for this release. Uneasy Laughter sounds an awful lot like a string of long-lost Joy Division and New Order tracks, unearthed and archived by Sub Pop for your archaeological pleasure.
Grant that people do exist who like Joy Division and New Order, and also The Cure and The Sound, and for those people, a modern-day take on the melodic, new wave aesthetic these bands are known is probably catnip: Uneasy Laughter was made for them. But grant also that basing an entire record on mimicry of an era of rock music, and then lazily characterizing plagiarism as an unavoidable part of the human condition, is cheap armchair philosophizing-cum-songwriting. Leave that kind of faux-profundity to angsty, antisocial teenage boys.
Pearls of wisdom like this make Uneasy Laughter a chore uneasily sat through, which wouldn’t be much of a loss if not for the tracks here that are worth listening to. “Make it Stop,” the album’s second song, grooves with wicked reverb echoing over distorted guitar riffs: For all of the ’80s influences, the tone here has a closer kinship with The Killers or Bombay Bicycle Club, sans tacky copycatting. Here, Moaning’s sources of inspiration calcify into music that’s all their own, just as those two bands have clear antecedents throughout rock’s canon but also have a clear sense of self. They’re able to distinguish who they are from what they’ve listened to. When Moaning find that alchemy on Uneasy Laughter, the album justifies itself. “Make it Stop” is an echoing earworm, cool and steely, but much more importantly, it’s unmistakably contemporary. This is a song written and released in 2020. It isn’t a chintzy replica of a mopey bygone tune.
At the same time, “Make it Stop” commits the same mortal sin as “What Separates Us” by excusing its own sonic pretense. “Authenticity / Isn’t what it was,” bemoans guitarist and frontman Sean Solomon on the second verse. Again: A true statement. But maybe musing over what is and isn’t “authentic”—which quite frankly is a nonsense trap word in its own right—after knocking out a baker’s dozen of tunes that read like period artifacts is bullshit. Maybe that’s the point; maybe making a record this baldly inauthentic, acknowledging again that authenticity is a surprisingly subjective idea, while critiquing authenticity is baked into Uneasy Laughter’s purpose. It’s meta. Or self-aware. Or something.
Uneasy Laughter is fine. It’d be much better if it was either divorced from ruminations on honesty, or if the band actually managed to define themselves without leaning on ’80s nostalgia. Songs like “Connect the Dots” and “Fall in Love,” not to mention opener “Ego” as well as closer “Say Something,” aren’t offensive to the ear, and Moaning isn’t a bad band. In fact, their self-titled 2018 says otherwise: They’re a pretty darn good band. “Connect the Dots” and “Ego” are likewise pretty darn good songs, particularly “Ego,” whose chorus feels revealing in terms of Uneasy Laughter’s timbre. “I wanna be anybody but myself,” Solomon laments on the chorus. Maybe that’s why he’s doing a Joy Division impersonation with fellow Moaning members Pascal Stevenson and Andrew MacKelvie. As impersonations go, it’s on point. As a sophomore outing, it’s disingenuous.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.