Issue #111: Chrome Neon Jesus by Teenage Wrist
April 30, 2018
Released On March 9, 2018
Released By Epitaph Records
I’m a sucker for big, anthemic choruses, and even more so when there’s a quiet/loud dynamic. It’s a nostalgia thing: I grew up on ’90s alt-rock and post-grunge. Thus, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, et al. were a big part of my upbringing. I remember buying Siamese Dream at a used video game store and getting lost in it for an entire summer. It’s easily their best record, and probably always will be. A quarter century later, it’s still awe-inspiring in its execution. It’s hard rock and dream pop in a near-perfect marriage, despite Billy Corgan’s penchant for high school diary lyricism. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine once wrote that Corgan’s lyrics “fall apart upon close analysis” and I don’t disagree.) Even still, it’s music that’s outlasted its era because of how superb the songwriting is.
I suppose that’s why I love Teenage Wrist’s Chrome Neon Jesus so much. This is an album that’s unafraid to rock the fuck out with a huge rawk sound at a time when it isn’t just unfashionable, it’s downright commercially toxic. And it’s clear that the California trio are perfectly comfortable pretending it’s the mid-90s. Producer Carlos de la Garza, who’s worked with Neon Trees, Paramore, and Jimmy Eat World, paints CNJ in hazy pastels so that it shimmers but not in an overpowering way. These are songs that make you wanna scream them back to the band in sweaty exhaustion.
That’s probably because of how impressive they are. You might be shocked that three kids from Los Angeles make so much noise and make it so goddamn catchy. The title track, “Swallow,” and “Black Flamingo” have some of the strongest hooks of any rock song I’ve heard this year. And over great songwriting are lyrics about apprehension towards modern times and the apathy that comes with being unable to deal with it. Lines like “I’m just so tired of being tired” and “Sometimes the struggle’s enticing” say so much with so little. And they also have cutting and cynical barbs to offer: “Strangers and lovers/ The sugar-filled assurance in between the lies” and “And I hope that this plane goes down/ So I can see who comes to mind”. There’s an almost unwavering confidence throughout the record, both in the songwriting and the performances, that strengthens it as a whole.
But maybe I’m just at the age (32) where I start to be impressed when a coupl’a twenty-somethings make music this mature. Or maybe my love for Chrome Neon Jesus, as new as it is, is based on the fact that I wish bands like the Pumpkins or Pearl Jam would be as great as they were in the ’90s when life was simpler and easier. I’m willing to concede there’s a chance that this is all based on misplaced romanticism of the past. Sure, OK. Or perhaps it’s the fact that CNJ is nervous and paranoid and anxious and neurotic just like me. Whatever the reason, I’m certain that at the end of 2018, this will be on my best-of list. More of this, please.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
A gaze of grunge from an LA power trio with impressive reinventions.
I’ll admit that I put off listening to Teenage Wrist for a few days this week. I’m very hesitant when I see that an album was released by Epitaph Records these days. I’m just a little bit too young to remember the label’s glory days, but thanks to the power of the internet, I’m very aware of the role the label played in the development of ’80s and ’90s punk rock. However, I’m also very aware that over the last decade Epitaph started signing bands that… well, to put it nicely, they’ve signed a lot of bands that I don’t really care for much (at one point, they had signed a band called Skip The Foreplay). But then I remember that the label’s modern roster also includes The Menzingers, Off With Their Heads, and The Lawrence Arms — some of my favorite acts, and that I should be more open-minded. Of course, none of my pre-listening thoughts actually prepared me for this. Teenage Chrome Jesus certainly isn’t an unholy combination of post-hardcore and dubstep, but it surely isn’t full of melodic punk rock songs either. It would be inaccurate to compare the band to Nirvana or Soundgarden, because the music is much dreamier and more atmospheric (I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. Just listen to “Spit” and you’ll understand what I mean). But it would also be inaccurate to say that there’s not at least a hint of influence from the grunge movement (the explosive opening riff of “Waitress,” especially as a follow up to the aforementioned “Spit” screams ’90s alternative rock to me). A few years ago, Deafheaven made waves with Sunbather for mixing elements of black metal with shoegaze, and I feel like Teenage Wrist should be getting similar recognition this year for pulling off grunge and shoegaze.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
It began with a tingle above my brow. Shortly after that, a chill slid up through my spine and an ache pounded at the back of my neck. I had to bow my head slightly forward. I was involuntarily staring at the floor as my previously bald, middle-aged forehead began to grow bangs again. A field, lost in the rains of a thousand tears. My bangs dangled down, obscuring my vision, and blurring lines across the view of my own torso. My shirt began to resolve into a plaid pattern and as fell to my knees, they tore open. Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that but at the very least, playing the debut full length of LA’s Teen Wrist transported me back to a time before emo made a mockery of teen angst. It was a time when the snarl of guitars lost in storms of feedback provided the foundation of the emotions being expressed while the vocals simply tied it all together with a barely audible melody. “Swallow” and “Stoned, Alone” boast a perfect execution of the traits that made shoegaze so special while dressing it up in modern, high quality studio production. Amusement Parks On Fire haven’t put out new material in years now and it’s been decades since we’ve heard anything from Ride or Lush. Once you listen to the combination of breakbeat and wall-of-noise guitar on “Kibo,” you realize that My Bloody Valentine doesn’t need to say another word. The trio known as Teenage Wrist have got all these bases covered. But they don’t need to do it exactly the same way. The melodies, lyrics, and in some cases even bass-heavy guitar riffs speak of a band who holds as much reverence for the sound as any of us old-schoolers. So as I listen on and indulge myself in angry self-pity, know that Chrome Neon Jesus is exactly the album we need right now and quite possibly one of the best of the year.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
With a more hectic schedule than usual, this year has seen me more at home, staying in on the weekend or venturing out to friends’ houses, catching up and reminiscing over the clink of wine bottles being set, empty again, on kitchen counters. Tuesdays, though, when I teach late and am too tired to do much of anything, became a respite in the week, where my husband and I would meet out for a quiet take-away dinner and a touch back to that greater reality of Richmond found outside our tiny circle. One sleepy Tuesday weeks ago found just us sitting on one side of the polished bar, just two or three other patrons eating cloistered in the tables behind us, and inevitably we found ourselves talking about new music we loved with our friend Clair Morgan. Being the sole bartender comes with playlist rights, so that night he put on this and that album, talking about the bands or certain members without worrying too much about the flow of the night. Pleasant as it was, the night was lost in my memory until picking up Chrome Neon Jesus this week and hearing again our conversation about the album. Though released two months ago, the album falls neatly into an established alt-rock sound predating the album by two decades. Strains of powerhouses like Foo Fighters, Autolux, and A Perfect Circle underline the crashing guitar and melodic vocal mix. Thematically, the album focuses on the difficulty of the human experience, a reminder of the fall into cynicism that characterizes the punk and grunge scenes that gave way for this kind of album to be created. With vocals harkening to the dreamy prog scene mixed with a grittier sound, Chrome Neon Jesus will either pull you back into playlists from your adolescence or introduce you to a whole world mixed and mastered before you were born.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
The word “anthemic” gets thrown around a lot in music writing. In my years blogging, I probably used it as much as “cinematic” and “gauzy” — it’s tired and lazy, but I’ve also spent a good amount of time on Thesaures.com trying to think of a better word for Teenage Wrist and all I came up with was “rousing…” and that just doesn’t fit. Teenage Wrist is maybe the truest definition of anthemic, in that it seems that it was written to fill stadiums. It’s loud, it’s celebratory — it’s the sound of a band expanding to fit all the space that’s available to them. It’s the kind of record that begs for the clichés I’ve fallen back on time and time again, the guitars are legitimately gauzy, Kamtin Mohager’s voice is legitimately melodic, the percussion is driving… Yet, none of these words do justice to the phenomenal construction of the record. Sure, it’s familiar — in a way where you can immediately start naming bands that they sound like (oh, hello Stone Roses, Nothing, Ride and even Silversun Pickups), but that doesn’t give the record enough credit for being good. It’s really good. It’s the kind of record you can come back to, the kind of record that’s so listenable, that it can’t help but stay on repeat.
Hannah Angst (@missangst)
Unappreciated Scholar Of The Muse
I’m not used to getting current albums as Off Your Radar picks, but it’s a nice change, especially when the band in question, Teenage Wrist, has already piqued my interest a bit. While advance press led me to expect “garage rock,” this term is incredibly misleading. If anything, this band is doing the sort of subtly heavy alternative rock that bubbled just under the surface throughout the ’90s. The best-known reference point here would be Hum, whose underground hit “Stars” had some of the same mix of catchy vocal melodies and guitar crunch that runs throughout Chrome Neon Jesus. However, it’s closer to the truth in my opinion to mention bands like Sparta, Quicksand, or even the Deftones, all of whom had the same heavy post-hardcore edge that bleeds through on killer tracks like the propulsive “Black Flamingo” and the moody, rumbling “Stoned, Alone.” The fact that this band is only a trio is surprising when registering the sheer thickness of the sound they make; it’s even more of a surprise to realize that the lushly melodic lead vocals and the menacing rumble of the bass are both generated by frontman Kamtin Mohanger. That combination of emotional melodies and angst-ridden heaviness is what creates the best music, in my humble opinion; which is to say, I’m a sucker for emo shit like this. Give me more.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Showing that all you need for a good music video is a good song, some cool filters, & an abstract thought.
In Homer’s Odyssey, as Odysseus slaughters the suitors trying for his wife’s hand, his son Telemachus famously shouts, “If you serve too many masters, you’ll soon suffer.” Others have also said that if you attempt to serve too many masters, you wind up serving none of them. I admit that this idea came to mind on my first couple of listens through Teenage Wrist’s debut album, which pulls in influences from a variety of guitar-driven genres, from metal and grunge to shoegaze and emo. Were they trying too hard to please everyone? But the more I listened, the cannier the trio’s concoction seemed, smoothly combining the last quarter-century of rock music and infusing it all with their own particular melodic and melancholy touches. They also make the most of the trio format, with the song “Stoned, Alone” being a great example. It starts with Kamtin Mohager strumming his bass, creating a thick, rhythmic bottom over which he sings the first verse before Marshall Gallagher’s guitar explodes in a shimmering fireworks display that has dazzle and heft. Anthony Salazar keeps the drums lean and free of excess ornament, driving the song with confidence and power. The bridge is pretty and spacious, which only makes the main riff crunch harder when it returns. Dynamics can really make a difference! Another strength is Mohager’s fine voice, which reminds me a little of Ride’s Mark Gardener — never a bad thing in my book. The album is also very consistent, with only “Swallow” resorting to excess guitar histrionics — so unnecessary among the finesse and subtlety that abounds throughout. Along with some of my favorites like Journalism, Warbly Jets, Acid Dad, and Jane Church, I’m going to add Teenage Wrist to the quiver of arrows I fire off whenever someone proclaims the death of rock music or says “guitar bands are over.”
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
“Time is a flat circle.” It’s not just a pithy claim written into True Detective to make Matthew McConaughey’s character seem deep, nor is it simply the result of McConaughey’s space travel in Interstellar. (Does it seem strange to anyone else that he keeps acting out time-defying plots while himself not seeming to age?) When it comes to music, time is as circular as the discs many of us still use to listen to it, and Chrome Neon Jesus lays on the 1990s nostalgia so thick via guitar sounds and power choruses that it ends up feeling immersive, like putting on a virtual reality headset. (This blurb writer certainly had a few middle/high school insecurities resurface for an ad-hoc reunion.) The album’s closing track, “Waitress,” addresses the idea of earlier versions of yourself directly: “Go home to the teenage you / Tell you not to worry / Stumble through the careless evenings where you dream of who you’ll be.” Coincidentally, while I was playing Chrome Neon Jesus at home over the weekend, my 11.5-month-old son got into my CD collection for the first time — freeing discs indiscriminately from a packed CD tower — and one of the albums he pulled out was Lit’s A Place In The Sun from 1999. Amid the chaos, I took a picture while he was looking up at me with an inquisitive expression, and I keep smiling at the idea that he’s questioning the choices I made during my heyday of buying CDs. (“‘My Own Worst Enemy‘? That was your jam back in the day?” “Yes, son, and it pretty much still is.”) Kurt Cobain’s death left a profound void in the musical landscape, and looking back, there’s a searching quality to the rock music that came out in the years that followed. I see beauty in how Teenage Wrist has circled back to that moment and found something faithful and truly enjoyable.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
The amazing part about this album, and the thing that really drew me in from the very first notes, is the blend of the lyrics which have the kind of murkiness of meaning (by which I mean, of course, that the lyrics aren’t immediately “gettable” and reward repeated listens) that I always loved in the songs I would listen to on the alternative radio station in 1997 with some truly powerful guitars. Every song feels different, but every song feels like it comes with the promise that the melodies are going to be catchy, the lyrics are going to require intense study and analysis, and the guitars are going to be amazing. I truly believe that this is the kind of album that my friend (and former OYR contributor) Andy would get into, correctly recommend to me, and then I’d take much too long to listen to. Fortunately, that timeline has been accelerated and I don’t have to kick myself very hard for missing out on this one for years and years. (Especially since the album came out less than two months ago!) And that feels like a real blessing to me. I have a feeling this one might end up on my list of favorite albums of the year. Check it out now so that you can put it on yours, too!
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Based on how Teenage Wrist presents itself as a band, by all accounts, the LA indie and alternative rock trio will be a welcome boon of newly heard music for some of the newsletter’s readership this week. There are likely to be others who have heard of this fairly young group before, as the members’ additional band accolades and present year debut album release make recent familiarity or buzz more probable. Still, for those uninformed about Teenage Wrist and this Green Day title-esque March 2018 full length, there’s an interesting duality at play: The album is new but the sound of the band is mostly not. Whether read before or after having heard Chrome Neon Jesus, once it becomes known that Carlos de la Garza engineered and produced this record — a producer known for credits with the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Silverstein, and Paramore — the strangely familiar blend of sonic aesthetics will make all the sense in the world. (It’s not to be implied of course, that de la Garza is a tunnel sound producer. The man has worked on albums for bands that exist far outside the loud, alternative, grunge-y sound exhibited by these bands at different points in time). The album is dynamically dense; its arrangement heavy with thick power chords, pulsing drums and cymbal crashes. The title track alone exudes a melodramatic quality not unlike Jimmy Eat World’s earlier work (Think the aggressiveness — but not necessarily the sonic looseness — of 1999’s Clarity), which was catchy but not always honing in on the prettier and more major key oriented side of alternative rock. The same can be said for the slices of Teenage Wrist that call out to Paramore fans. Earlier Paramore, was also darker, grungier, and about thickly layered, more cavernous mixes. However, around the arrival of Riot!, also offered a slightly clearer sound akin to the mix for Teenage Wrist. All this being said, don’t presume Chrome Neon Jesus to be what the two aforementioned bands would sound like if one simply mashed them together. Guitarist/vocalist Marshall Gallagher, bassist/vocalist Kamtin Mohager, and drummer Anthony Salazar do make a point to inject their own twist on emotional discernment that differs from any primary influences or noticeable similarities in aesthetic from de la Garza’s resume. The band dances on a fine line between setting a foundation with the sonic intensity of alternative rock and performing with a graceful sadness more closely aligned with distinctively emo groups. Ultimately, the balancing of these two stylizations is done in an appealing way but make no mistake: much of what makes Chrome Neon Jesus what it is, comes from years and artistic trends that aren’t exactly current and so its sound is likely to shake up the nostalgia jar most for those missing sounds from the early 2000s.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
Trot out all the references you can, but this trio definitely carves out their own place in the alt-rock canon.
Guru from Gang Starr famously said that “It’s mostly the voice that gets you up / It’s mostly the voice that makes you buck / A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skills / But if your voice ain’t dope, you need to chill.” It’s such a keen observation as to why enjoy certain artists and discard others. An artist can have the greatest songs written for them, but if their voice doesn’t register with the people, the songs mean nothing. What I found so striking about the entire Chrome Neon Jesus record is the vivid emotion that comes through in the vocals. The group consistently utilizes some well-executed harmonies to drive the point home. For instance on “Rollerblades” they admit they “never look around to see how far I’ve come.” It’s a simple line, and a simple concept, but the way in which it’s said make you think about your own personal inventory. Speaking of personal inventory, there’s the exceptionally dark “Spit.” I love the originality of lines like “I hope that this plane goes does down, so I can see who comes to mind.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such an eerie, ominous, and depressing idea set to music before. Kudos for that.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
When I originally downloaded this album, I thought, “Hmm, that’s an edgy band name. It must be time to whip out the liquid eyeliner and clip on neon extensions.” I assumed I was in for some sort of silly My Chemical Romance inspired post-emo band trying to incite the emo revival I’ve been waiting for since the mid-2000s. For those of you reading this who found themselves cringing through those last three sentences, fear not, Teenage Wrist is nothing like what I anticipated. Shoegazey, post-grunge, power trio Teenage Wrist have managed to capture all the angst of your teenage years and blended it with beautifully warm fuzz tones, a cacophony of super wet reverbs and almost haunting echoes that together simulate a sort of pleasant drowning sensation. Reminiscent of iconic ’90s through to early 2000s alt rockers, this throwback tone in the deft hands of Teenage Wrist is taken to new heights. When I first listened to this album, I drew comparisons to east coast contemporaries Brand New. Both artists seem to embrace similar themes and somewhat nihilistic points of view but unlike Brand New, Teenage Wrist doesn’t rely on post-hardcore screaming to emphasise their points. Having grown up with the majority of my musical influences screaming in my ears, I find myself really appreciating Teenage Wrist’s carefully crafted vocals. In some ways, I even find myself thinking that this album seems to be more powerful because Teenage Wrist are not pulling out the same old tricks that bands like Brand New have been relying on for years. Chrome Neon Jesus is the perfect album to add to your blossoming collection, especially if you’re looking to develop your cool guy with subtle hints of some mysterious life altering emotional baggage persona. When the emo revival comes for us all, you will be leading the pack. If you’re doubting me now, that’s okay. Not everyone is as excited about the emo revival as I am, but trust me when I say, you won’t regret listening to Chrome Neon Jesus. In the hands of Teenage Wrist, nihilism never sounded so good.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
I have to admit, the name Teenage Wrist caught me off guard slightly and had me expecting something very thrashing and full of screaming — and I’m not sure why I even made that assumption. But I know that time and time again I am proved wrong in the best way when I do (slightly) judge the book by its cover. This style of music is right up my alley. Soft dreamy vocals, but with a heavy guitar that you can really just rock out to. Along with the strong musicality and great voice, the lyrics themselves are awesome — you can really feel how they felt when they wrote the music. I’m a little shocked that I hadn’t heard this or gotten a Spotify notification when it was released because it is honestly something I can so easily listen to on repeat. If I had to pick a favourite track, it would potentially be “Stoned, Alone” just because as soon as I heard it, I felt connected to it. When it comes to music, I love being proved wrong in my expectations and being pleasantly surprised… and that is exactly what happened with this album.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
If you’ve been itching to relive the glory days of emo alt-rock of the ’90s and early ’00s, Teenage Wrist is here to scratch that for you. Their debut album, Chrome Neon Jesus, sounds like a painstaking reconstruction of the sounds of that time, for better or worse. Which is what they were going for, seeing as the first line of their album description posits the involvement of producer/engineer Carlos de la Garza, and his credits with Jimmy Eat World and Paramore in particular (although a quick internet search turns up a more varied and interesting body of work than those two names belie). The band finds magic in songs like the catchy singles “Swallow” and “Stoned, Alone,” and they end things on a high note with a strong pair of closing tracks, “Spit” and “Waitress.” Both are longer and more contemplative than anything that came before and, consequently, more captivating in their ambition than some of the other songs. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly music elitist, either you grew up and came of age with this music and still have a lot of love for it, or you didn’t. If you’re more the former, this is for you.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
My colleagues above are all making some really refined comparisons here, or sending me e-mails asking if I know if Teenage Wasteland is influenced by [insert obscure indie legend]. Me? I’m thinking of the post-grunge explosion, specifically of the early 2000s where bands like Puddle Of Mudd ruled alt-rock stations. I know, I know — eye rolls are warranted, but what makes me think about that less-than-ideal time period is how Teenage Wrist does that sound the way it should have been all along. Back in our Guilty Pleasures issue, I talked about TRUSTCompany, one of those post-grunge bands that mixed alt-rock with metal overtones, and while I still think their music rises above the mean of the genre, I certainly can pinpoint the clichés and formulas at work in their music. Teenage Wrist reminds me a lot like TRUSTCompany: the way they marry contrarian vocal and guitar tones, the way the verses and choruses melodically rub against each other, and… maybe just the way it makes me want to invert into myself and get lost in their nebulous angst. In this sense, “Swallow” not only feels like a song TRUSTCompany never wrote, but the song that they should have used for their formula building. Most of us have touched down on the familiar places Teenage Wrist touches down on, and while those references we’ve all dropped at your feet are anything but arbitrary, it still feels like the most important piece of Teenage Wrist’s sound is how they truly make it their own. Throw out any reference you want from Ride to Smashing Pumpkins to… yes, TRUSTCompany, but when the 1-2 closing punch of “Spit” and “Waitress” hits (and hits hard), you’ll know that no past reference does this music justice. Chrome Neon Jesus shows that no matter how many classic ’90s bands explored the depth of alt-rock, there is still so much more to uncover. We don’t cover new music much here, but just know that no 2018 Best Of list will be complete without a mention of Teenage Wrist.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Songs From Under The Sink by Mischief Brew
Chosen By Catherine Dempsey