Underlined Passages have the college rock thing down. Literally. Check the band’s website and in the tour dates section, you’ll see slots for performances at places like WTMD, WRSU and WFDU. In their bio, they tout being requested for a repeat in-studio performance on Rutgers University’s radio station and, according to them at least, their songs have charted in the top 20 at (at least) six different radio stations.
And yet all that quantitative success in the college rock realm doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the group’s qualitative success in the genre. 2016’s “The Fantastic Quest” was novel in its commitment to the kind of harmlessly pointed, emotionally driven, nice-guy, sad-sap rock that turned R.E.M. from university heartthrobs into arena gods. It established the very real fact that band braintrust Michael Nestor knows what he likes and likes what he knows. Droning guitars. Rock-solid backbeats. A voice as inviting as it is harmonious.
It’s Nestor’s signature and it’s all over his band’s latest set, “Tandi My Dicafi.” A natural step forward for the Maryland duo, it takes the “Quest” formula and expands it with maturity and vision, slowing things down more than its predecessor and understanding the value in variety. The lyrics still take aim at your heart and Nestor’s voice still sounds like a bed of warm feathers, but this is a quicker listen than the band’s previous effort, making for a pleasant, concise experience that deserves as many accolades as anything Underlined Passages has ever done.
Some of the most memorable moments come in the form of the one-two-punch that is “Thinking On A Sunday” and “Ruthenia.” The former is as uptempo as these guys get here, Jamaal Turner’s drums driving forward a dance-tastic groove that evokes visions of women in puffy hair shoulder-dancing in oversized long-sleeved, cut-off shirts. Plus, at a crisp 2:34, there’s no reason it wouldn’t fit brilliantly on any playlist curated at any American college in 1987.
Meanwhile, “Ruthenia” announces itself with a guitar lick most likely found on the cutting-room floor of Gin Blossoms’ “New Miserable Experience.” As accessible and infectious as the verses are, the song’s shining moment comes each time the chorus takes hold. Complete with lush backing vocal harmonies and a beat that cuts in half, it’s the sonic equivalent of clouds breaking after days of rain for an afternoon of sunshine. It’s the most epic moment of the record.
And that says something for a band that works just as well never attempting to scale grand heights. Case in point: “Your Bedroom.” Launching with an effects-laden groove from Turner, the single gives the band a new layer as it offers up a blend of balladry they’ve never revealed previously. Subdued and pretty, the prevalent synths give the production a level of warmth and levity these guys had yet to utilize. The result is deliciously moody, a formula you’d love to hear them explore more extensively somewhere down the line.
Instead, however, we receive a lot of what has garnered them success in the past. That’s not a bad thing, of course; it’s just the tinniest bit frustrating to see something new around the bend and feel as though it might have been a mirage. Take opener “Feelings,” which, with an added touch of synth, epitomizes the droning, straight-forward rock that this band uses as a base for its sound. “Silverlake” is similar, minus the prevalent electronics, and plus a Cure-esque guitar lead that adds an impressive atmosphere to the recording.
All of this says nothing of the set’s best song, “Bottlerocket.” Slowed down and moody, the star here is Turner’s interesting drum parts, from the inventive rim-shot-laden verses to the hazy ride cymbal that paints the chorus. Completing the production is the repetition of Nestor’s longing ending hook, “And I know you’re waiting for me now.” It’s the perfect period on a sentence colored with blue and gray strokes, a fantastic combination of rejection and hope.
Which is, of course, not unlike one’s college years — the thrill of independence, maturity and life’s next steps mirrored by the agony of crushing defeats like romantic heartbreak, bad grades, or the responsibility of paying an Internet bill. It all sums up Underlined Passages perfectly and it comes to life on “Tandi My Dicafi.” Sad, but promising. Burned, but optimistic. Eager, but cautious.
“I notice you are just like me,” Nestor proclaims on “Silverlake.” “We want to be seen, we want to be seen.”
Consider the eyes on you, sir. Now, what are you going to do, knowing everybody’s watching?
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***