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SPIN Essentials

Review: Bully Stone and Dethrone the ’90s Indie Set on ‘Feels Like’

Bully, Feels Like
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Label: Startime International/Columbia

Birthed from the grimy Nashville scene that birthed similar retro-gazing scuzz-pop acts Diarrhea Planet and Jeff the Brotherhood, Alicia Bognanno was a former intern at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios, and she was born the year between Doolittle and Nevermind. By that count, her path seems predestined. But the Bully singer/guitarist says that any resemblance her band bears to the tattered-flannel rock that ruled the early ’90s was subconscious at most.

A host of nostalgically minded alt-rock revivalists take a dip into the same pool of influences that inform Bognanno, but Bully’s explorations of love and other mysteries feel fresh and visceral in comparison. Even on the record’s relatively subdued numbers, like “Bully,” Bognanno blows new breath into the sails of a riff that Thurston Moore has written a dozen times over, going for carbon monoxide-filled garage rock drive where her peers might embrace the expected excess. The efforts are Frankensteinian in approach, shocking new life into old parts.

That vitality is almost entirely due to Bognanno’s efforts. Each vocal take sounds as if it’d been recorded after one too many whiskeys and each guitar part after one too many espressos. There’s her voice, a bitter, charred thing capable of giving any mundane couplet an acrid bite. And then guitar lines do laps around the room like deflating balloons. The rhythm section occasionally strains to keep up with her, but this works in favor of their off-balance compositions. On the jittery opener “I Remember,” drummer Stewart Copeland — no, not that one — attempts to match Bognanno’s pace with a downright wrist-shattering beat on his hi-hat. The resulting clatter sounds less like a band running off-the-rails than the agitated sugar-crash off a mess of Pixy Stix he might have snorted in an attempt to keep up with the song’s seemingly boundless energy.

It’s a trick that the quartet repeats throughout the record, building anxiety out of sheer momentum — and it suits Bognanno’s self-flagellating lyrics. She dissects both the past and present of her stumbles and shortcomings, a reminder that when her life “feels like trash” (as she bellows on the “Trash” chorus that gives the record its name) there’s a good chance that she had something to do with it. And whether through repeated association or inborn aesthetics, this tangled mess of mangled vocal cords and serpentine guitar runs seems the only appropriate accompaniment for her tales of guilt (“Six”), stagnancy (“Picture”), and her own eventual triumph (“Trying”).

It’s this dual-pronged effort that keeps Bully from the pitfalls of seemingly every other band that looks to the past. Everything they do is familiar, but unhinged — like comfort food with an unexpected bite on the back end. Other bands have aimed for the same mantle as Bully but their take on the structures stands somewhere off on its own. It’s hard to imagine a better record to stone and dethrone the three reigning M’s of ’90s indie: Malkmus, Mascis, and Martsch. But even if Feels Like‘s tuff gnarls don’t establish Bognanno as heir apparent, she’s at least another great bleach-blonde hope.