No Place Else
Reviewed by: Max Miller
Photographed before a nondescript alley with tufts of unkempt grass breaking through the cracks in the pavement, the four scruffy young men that make up the Brainstems project an image as dingy and devil-may-care as their music. The St. Louis garage rock group have released three EPs in as many years, building up to No Place Else, their debut LP on Bad Diet Records and the culmination of pent-up scuzzy angst.
Opener “Stallioning” begins with an unexpectedly shoegaze-y trickle of tremolo-picked notes before an urgent bassline creeps up from somewhere in the mix and heralds what kind of record this is going to be. There are driving riffs and gang shouts aplenty as someone shouts in a convincing Iggy-Pop-meets-Scott-Hill impression, “I’m a motherfuckin’ stallion!” The tune also features a brief monologue that makes for a convincing definition of ennui and nihilism: “I’m sitting at the art museum, in the art museum cafe, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a croissant. I’ve been in an equine state of mind, but I stare down the hillside and I just sip my coffee…’til the sun goes down.”
The energy rarely dips from there on out, and neither do references to the grind of day-to-day urban life. The album, both sonically and aesthetically, recalls the prime Manchester years of post-punk, in which the music of groups like the Fall and Joy Division reflected the bleak cityscape in which their members toiled. The production on No Place Else surely adds to this authentic grimy feel, as well it should, for it was handled by Total Control’s Mikey Young, who has notable experience in recapturing the sound of that very era.
Of course, with the Brainstems hailing from St. Louis, many listeners may wonder whether the band addresses Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson last summer. Rather than ignore the subject or reference it obtusely, they confront their city’s prejudice head-on. On “Redline,” the band questions the deep economic divide that runs along racial lines throughout their and many other cities in America, referencing white Southerners’ rallying principle of “separate-but-equal” in the pre-Civil Rights era, and wondering whether that practice still not-so-secretly holds true. There’s not a much clearer indictment to be made than “And Ferguson still is wondering if it’s separate but…what?”
However, political conscious or no, the Brainstems for the most part are no more than a competent garage rock band. They harken back to all the predictable antecedents, from the Ramones to the Oblivians to Jay Reatard. Even when they go for a slowed-down psychedelic vibe on “What It Is,” they begin to edge in on Thee Oh Sees’ territory, and when they chant monotone phrases over the driving rhythm of “4244,” they sound an awful lot like Parquet Courts. Brief moments of novelty like the punked-up Iron Maiden harmony midway through “The Ooze” or the insightful monologue of “The People’s Joy” offer glimpses, alongside the aforementioned highlights, that the Brainstems will hopefully have more to offer in the future. For now, No Place Else captures one promising phase of a work in progress.