Last year, New Jersey’s Big Troubles dropped their debut record Worry on Olde English Spelling Bee — its thick layer of fuzz and squeaky clean melodies making them the prime candidates for a spot on the Slumberland roster, which is exactly where they are now. Helmed by the songwriting duo of Ian Drennan and Alex Craig, Big Troubles worship at the altar of Twee As Fuck; on their sophomore release, Romantic Comedy they’ve cleaned up their songs drastically, cheery noise pop gems rife with the kind of awkward sexual uncertainty that could only be a product of arrested suburban adolescence. Hell, just look at the song names: “Minor Keys,” “Make It Worse,” “Sad Girls,” and “Misery.” (Fun fact: Slumberland is putting out two records this fall that include songs called “Misery”; see track four of the self-titled Veronica Falls record for the other). But we’re not here to judge books by their covers, their dead-eyed-mannequins-sitting-at-a-yellow-pastel-diner-table-bathed-in-a-beige-background covers.
The thing is, there are some damn fine songs on this record. The aforementioned “Misery,” with its straight-from-the-heavens guitar hooks and gut rumbling bass line, shows Big Troubles certainly have the chops. As does “Time Bomb,” Romantic Comedy’s grittiest and most adventurous track by a long shot — the usually squeaky clean guitars slightly scuzzed with distortion while at times they swirl, drenched in chorus and reverb as intermittent screeches of feedback eke out. And there’s the record’s most wonderfully surprising moment, a sudden burst of guitars and horns that’s gone all too soon at the end of penultimate track, “Engine.” None of these tracks forgo their noise pop roots, and Big Troubles don’t chain themselves down either.
It’s too bad then that Big Troubles doesn’t do this enough. Indeed, there are plenty of standout melodies that you’ll suddenly find yourself humming (the choruses of “Sad Girls,” “Minor Keys”), but there’s something mind-numbing about this record. Sonically, it’s almost too pleasant: The guitars, even when distorted, are too timid, the drums too simple, the vocals unbearably monotonous, breathy, and detached, as if Craig and Drennan wanted to pay homage to their influences, but decided they were too cool for it halfway through. There’s the awkward, unnecessary key change in “Sad Girls”; Craig’s airy drone of a croon when he sings on “Never Mine,” one of many dejected paeans like, “It felt just fine but it never was mine / But I’ll just wait till I lose my mind”; it’s the fact that the band shows it’s capable of bringing these songs out of cardiac arrest, but lets half of them flatline anyway. At its most drab, Romantic Comedy sounds like standardized Slumberland, the amalgamation of the most pleasant, inoffensive aspects of that whole aesthetic—twee muzak.
I’m guessing the record’s title was supposed to be a cheeky play on words, a self-deprecating wink and nudge at hilarity of sexual frustration. The problem is Big Troubles don’t really convince you on Romantic Comedy that they’ve got that kind of confidence. The record too often seems unsure of itself, the band uncertain of their ability to make this style of music conform to their rules rather than vice versa — a shame considering how talented Craig and Drennan are when it comes to melody and song. As a result, Romantic Comedy reminds you of just that, periodically charming if ultimately forgettable in its adherence to convention.