Mess is really, really good at what Mess does. As someone studiously pointed out somewhere in the dark corners of the World Wide Internet, it would be hard to think these guys don’t own a bunch of records dated sometime between 1990 and 1994. The sound that so many kids in so many flannel shirts grew to love is so distinct, so obvious when it’s done well, and, again, without question, Mess does it well.
So, what’s the sound? You know it when you hear it. Sadly pretty guitars that distort on a dime. Driving pop rhythms punctuated by mild twists and angsty undercurrents. A pleasant singing voice able to burst from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk whenever a song’s evolution calls for it. Production that finds the sweet spot between lo- and hi-fi without committing to either. Think anything that was cool enough to dominate college radio in the early ‘90s and yet never break through into “120 Minutes” territory — and was all the cooler for it.
Mess is all those things and more. And on “Tree,” the band’s seven-song debut EP, each element of that formula is presented with enough confidence to significantly further an already-prevalent aptitude for this specific blend of rock. In short, it will make you tap your feet as you lace up that pair of high-top Chuck Taylors you’ve been meaning to dust off ever since Superdrag broke up.
To back all that up, just listen to how the set begins. “Lean,” the shortest track here, busts through the door to settle into a slow mid-tempo anchored by Evan Braswell’s melodic guitar work. The true victory, however, is when things go from loud to soft, the verses bleeding that familiar alt-rock vibe that made a band like Nada Surf so Popular. Throw in Erik Wagner’s longing voice — one you swear you heard before — and it’s like stepping into a time machine.
Speaking of time, the 6/8 signature of “Mr. Crowley Flung Among The Crowded Rooms” sways wonderfully, introducing itself with a combination of Mike Barth’s drums, a crisp guitar and Wagner’s signature vocal stylings. Not only is it the best song here, but it’s also the most compact. Sure, it lends itself to as much because of its waltz-infused textures, but not once does the song feel like it drags. And once the bridge hits and Barth has room to spread out with his hi-hat work, look out, because a joyride awaits.
Yet what makes “Crowley” so much fun is also what lacks in moments elsewhere throughout the record: editing. These are the types of songs that were made to be in and out in four minutes or less. “We Are All Returning” meanders just a little too much for its own good. The slow groove, in this case, doesn’t help, either. What is intriguing about the song, however, is the way Wagner approaches his lines. When he offers “Today is the last day/Of the rest of your days/To be spent/So present” to begin the track, he’s a dead ringer for Middle Kid’s Zack Willis, all the way up to the subliminal quiver in his enunciation. It’s enough to make anyone smile through the tears.
The other longer songs aren’t as bothersome. “Blossom” succeeds not only because of its accents, but also the creative drum work that fills the instrumental gaps between words. The mid-track break in action also serves as a stark signifier of the group’s versatility. Meanwhile, EP-closer “Everywhere Is Falling Everywhere” earns its five-and-a-half minutes with its opening aggression. With more than a minute of music to open it, Wagner eventually sells the hook with aplomb, asserting, “Why wait for something that will always come? F— it, let’s have the most fun.”
Wise words for a band called Mess. And in truth, having fun is what makes “Tree” so appealing — everything from the music to the lyrics feels sincere, and it probably goes without saying that you’re always your most honest when you’re having the most fun. Sure, that might not mean everything is particularly happy, but it’s better to be miserable with your friends than it is to be miserable without them.
“Let the song be the song we sang,” Wagner croons on the melancholy “Another Song About The Grave” before eventually concluding the track with a memorable revelation: “We can cry about it and we can laugh about it.”
A beautiful Mess, indeed.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **