So sings Heavy Lights leader Ryan Nicholson on “Stop Talkin’” and it’s perfect. Perfect for the tiny touch of Caribbean textures that sit behind his words like a jovial beach party that doesn’t even begin to end until the sun comes up. Perfect for how unforgivingly persistent it is as a hook, the line and melody taking residence in one’s head without any intention of departure. Perfect for how contradictory the music and words prove to be, such a happy structure shading equally catastrophic scenery.
There are plenty of moments like this on the band’s debut LP, “Mad Minds.” Antithetical in nature. Confident in presentation. Almost flawless in execution. And utterly irresistible in consumption. Rising from the ashes of The Old Liners, Heavy Lights aren’t any more a rebirth than they are a reaffirmation of precisely how valuable and revelatory a restart can be. In the case of Nicholson — along with running mates Chris Morris, Brian Weakly and Derek Salazar — this record doesn’t sound like a mere second chance at a first impression; instead, it announces Heavy Lights as one of the premiere rock outfits the entire state of Maryland probably has.
From the first wave of “Exploder” all the way to the final goodbye of “Best Selling Show,” it’s difficult to find spots of dust on this Pledge-doused table and even harder to discover a splinter of wood even remotely detached from its original position. Take the oddly timed “Wurli” as the most obvious example of detail. Eased in by Nicholson’s delicately rueful voice and Morris’ creatively concocted drums, the song explodes into a dirty flurry of rock-hard guitars and driving rhythms that only grow in weight with each subtle organ intonation. It’s sounds like Muse before any time ran out.
Actually, the comparison with the English trio is apt for another, more relevant reason: Brian Weakly’s bass guitar. Much like the aforementioned pop-prog mainstays, Heavy Lights would hardly be half the band it is without the prowess of their low end leader. Check the radio-ready groove that drives “Fate, Come” or the spot-on cleanliness of “The Ringing Bells.” Not only is Weakly’s playing throughout each of the 10 songs a treat from a musician’s standpoint, but it’s also one of the handful of subliminally imperative touches that wipes “Mad Minds” dry.
Another one of those understated elements? Nicholson’s falsetto. With a voice that recalls a warmer, more humane Ben Gibbard, the singer’s delivery impresses consistently, rising when it has to, yet sounding just as comfortable whenever it’s asked to fade into the atmosphere. Plus, it’s hard to imagine the group’s slower songs working nearly as well without its volume.
Case in point? Closer “Best Selling Show,” the moodiest of the bunch, provides a side of the band that’s hard to believe exists when you consider the aggressive structures heard elsewhere. Nicholson’s ability to convey a special kind of tenderness earns him his stripes as not only a frontman but a gifted crooner. Add a 6/8 time signature and some sparse splashes of slide guitar, and what you have is a set of Heavy Lights that tellingly have no problem losing weight.
Yet none of that means their intensity doesn’t play well whenever those bulbs want to shine bright. For all the promise showcased throughout “Mad Minds,” it’s the title track that ultimately suggests itself as 2014’s Song of the Year … so far. Sounding a lot like most people hoped Julian and Sean would sound (saber-tooth tiger or not) after John’s kids announced their intention to follow in their father’s footsteps, it’s the marquee moment on a record filled with headliners.
Anchored by an adoringly biting hook that features the band’s leader asserting “Forget the who/ What, where, and the when,” the track’s harmonies echo that of later-year Beatles, whenever the Beatles still wanted to be a pop band. Heavy praise for some heavy lights? Of course. But one listen to that second verse, complete with brilliantly bopping backing vocals, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an argument stating otherwise. It’s the band’s most realized moment.
Which makes sense, because “Mad Minds,” even with its limited flaws, is without question one of the most realized albums Frederick has seen this side of Silent Old Mtns.’ “Velvet Raccoon.” Taken as a whole, the collection is wildly original and excitingly hungry, a set of indie-pop not afraid to use countless contagious guitar riffs and enough layered vocals to make Max Martin blush.
Thus is should be said: No fear of lightning bolts needed. There’s enough electricity in these 10 songs to generate the loudest crack of thunder this year might hear. All lit up.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***