David Bazan and some old pals crank the volume without losing the narrative nuance the ex-Pedro the Lion leader is known for. Check the tour dates, below.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Lo Tom cheekily bill themselves as an indie rock super group, featuring David Bazan and a trio of even lesser-known dudes—Trey Many (Velour 100, Starflyer 59), TW Walsh (Pedro the Lion, The Soft Drugs) and Jason Martin (Starflyer 59)—who’ve played in bands together since they were kids.
In that spirit, their eponymous debut, released on July 14 by Barsuk, was thrown together with minimal fuss—reportedly over just two weekends—using frill-free jam session instrumentation: two guitars, bass and drums. The results rocks harder than most of Bazan’s back catalog and contrasts starkly with his earlier 2017 release, the synth-and-programmed-beats Care.
The trade-off here is gut-punch immediacy for considered sonic depth, and it’s a theme Bazan acknowledges on “Lower Down.” The song opens in full Crazy Horse grinding guitar mode, and highlights Bazan’s snarled chorus, “you don’t need to chase the sound/if it comes from lower down.” Lo Tom‘s seven other songs embrace that edict and build around guitar riffage suggestive of classic rock’s hallmark licks. “Find the Shrine” even recalls the opening chords barrage of AC/DC’s “TNT.”
But this isn’t praise-the-blow and bring-on-the-groupies rock. (“Down comes the mountain with some breaking news/of what becomes of me, and what becomes of you,” Bazan warns—over those AC/DC riffs—of the dust-to-dust fate that awaits us all.) While the publicity for Lo Tom insists “no one is in charge,” the narrative themes echo the same ones Bazan’s been exploring in fertile detail since he founded Pedro the Lion in the mid-90s. The draw of his songs has always been spiritual ambivalence, specifically re: Christianity. The pull of pride or a good time—via drugs, sex or any gluttonous combo thereof—is leavened by acknowledging the high cost of sin.
These themes still resonate for non-believers because they take their psychic toll, too. Over the years, Bazan’s uncorked some wicked lines calling out hypocrisy and the folly of pride (or the folly of just about any human endeavor). Yet the finger-pointing has always started in the mirror with Bazan—and in that tension is where his songs shine brightest, no matter the stylistic differences.
On “Bubblegum,” for instance, over another sinister riff, Bazan uses the sticky mess/rotting teeth hangover metaphor to chide the subject for their usual “day after” vows to change. Recovery is hard work, the “crooked lines just aren’t that easy to plot,” Bazan warns, and so it’s way easier to give in: “All the old fight is so quickly forgotten/So raise ’em up high to really hoping you stop…or get caught.” The lens widens over the dynamic riff of “Covered Wagon” to include our obsessive phone culture and the tribal devolution it encourages, while the three-minute rocker “Another Mistake” laments the folly of our leaders’ hubris—and the folly of pledging loyalty to them in the first place.
The buy-in with Bazan usually comes with the songs that capture human relationships at their most fraught moments. The hotel room argument between lovers in “Bad Luck Charm”—”She’s not coming out of the bathroom or texting back”—is heartbreaking, and “Overboard” only raises the emotional stakes.
Over a prominent bass line and overlapping guitar lines, Bazan recounts the aftermath of a failed relationship with a hook worthy of peak-era Lemonheads. Evan Dando, though, was an emotional piker by comparison, so the moment of implosion when Bazan “finally understood my place in that sycamore tree” carving is as devastating as when he confesses, “it just takes a while for me to un-feel a thing/and the opposite of what you think for that bell to un-ring.”
But as in “Lower Down,” the power of music—and here on Lo Tom, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, in particular—offers a life vest. Straining at the top of his raspy range on the bridge, Bazan raises the hair on our necks when he urges us on “Overboard” to “sing that song at the top of your lungs, don’t listen to the static/just listen to the drums.” For a guy who used to draw in charcoals and now tends to favor the digital realm, it’s great to hear Bazan and his pals paint in these big splashy primary colors.