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Pittsburgh rocker Nic Lawless shows polish, versatility on newest release

By Shawn Cooke / For The Pitt News

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Nic Lawless and His Young Criminales

Sunless

Grade: B

Self-released

A name like Nic Lawless can evoke a dangerous brand of listener expectations. Harkening back to a time when punk implied serious troublemaking, a sensational alias may raise a few eyebrows within the now hyper-image-conscious scene. Such is the case with Mr. Lawless.

However, on Sunless, Lawless shows that he is capable of far more than some old-school punk hellraising. While the name works to reflect his erratic stage presence, it does little to convey the smooth versatility displayed on the band’s first full-length album. Throughout the album, the Pitt student briskly transitions between dirty garage punk and old-fashioned surf pop, often blending the two subgenres into a familiar, infectious sound.

On his self-titled debut EP, Lawless specialized in ultra-fuzzy lo-fi with nearly unintelligible lyrics. Delightfully messy, the songs felt like they were banged out in the smallest basement or garage imaginable. Tinges of the sunny garage punk found on Sunless were present back then, but the evolution is undeniable. Cleaner, leaner and more thoroughly polished, the songs on Sunless sizzle and punch with a stark increase in production value. Two tracks — “911” and “Hi Way” — appear on both releases, yet bear little sonic resemblance. The searing distortion and muted sneer from the Nic Lawless EP has been replaced with a far more streamlined vocal and instrumental track that would not be out of place on a recent Strokes album.

Not coincidentally, Lawless cites Julian Casablancas as a primary influence, along with Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground. He proudly exhibits stylistic tics from each artist throughout the release, yet they sometimes feel awkwardly isolated. The album’s front half features some of the more glaring homages to Lawless’ influences. Not only does “911” feature some signature Casablancas moans and croons, but it also displays the catchy and taut guitar riff-work associated with, well, every Strokes song ever. On the next track, “Love Like Death,” Lawless and the Criminales give their best Iggy and the Stooges impression, complete with howls, screams, and a barreling guitar line. As a garage punk rock band in 2013, it’s nearly impossible to maintain any degree of originality. However, a shape-shifting track-by-track commitment to various rock archetypes can prove to be exhausting for the duration of an album.

Luckily, Nic Lawless and His Young Criminales confidently swagger into the album’s second half with their catchiest and most self-assured tracks. Brimming with ideas, the album’s midsection contains some genuinely exciting garage punk — not just “for a Pittsburgh band,” but for a band from any of the nation’s major indie hubs. The album’s title track stands out as a definitive turning point, cranking the collective energy up to 11. Lawless howls and wails similarly to previous tracks, but with a conviction and style that is solely his own. Though “Sunless” and “Black Girls” only amount to two and a half minutes, they are a jolting transition into the band’s finest tracks to date.

Instead of devoting entire songs as tribute to a particular artist’s style, Lawless begins to merge them all into a fully-formed and unified sound. “Walk” is a driving centerpiece, brimming with feedback and multi-layered guitar fills. On “Darlings,” the opening bars cruise through a nonchalant funk jam before promptly swerving into a dynamic punk freak-out, replete with a wildly infectious bass groove.  

Sure, everything still sounds familiar, but that doesn’t have to be a derogatory slight. Bands like Tame Impala, Foxygen, and Savages also artfully embody a different era and sound, but are rarely given the negative distinction of “retro.” When Lawless strays from imitation and applies his influences to a fully realized and fearless sound, he makes throttling music. Music that shouldn’t be limited to the ears of Steel City residents.

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Pittsburgh rocker Nic Lawless shows polish, versatility on newest release