Only nine years into the following decade, and it seems that the music of the ’90s is already ripe for a loving pastiche. More specifically, in the case of Brooklyn-based bedroom auteur Todd Goldstein, aka Arms, it’s the mid-’90s US college radio scene which merits a nostalgic revisitation so soon after the event. Whatever next? Pearl Jam playing the Wolverhampton civic hall? Blind Melon opening up a grunge theme bar in Lanzarote?
Remarkably, everything on Kids Aflame is played by Goldstein himself; presumably not at the same time, for then the name Arms might then take on rather sinister connotations. Less remarkably, the music consistently retraces the steps of Nirvana‘s more melodic apostles, which is likely to sound very familiar indeed if you’re too old for a MySpace profile.
Big, fuzzy, melodic guitars, rattly drums, and reedy vocals are the order of the day. Tonally it’s pitched somewhere between the grunge-lite of Weezer or the Foo Fighters‘ first album (also effectively a solo effort) and the Neil Young-influenced scuzzy country rock of Grant Lee Buffalo.
Kids Aflame is very listenable and confidently executed. Whirring, with its shimmery steel guitar and syrupy chord changes, takes Dinosaur Jr as its starting point and comes up with something just as (if not more) enjoyable. In a parallel universe, somewhere in the depths of 1994, you can imagine it as NME or Melody Maker’s single of the week.
Shitty Little Disco does much the same, distilling and refining the college rock sound into a super-catchy essence. On the best parts of Kids Aflame, this is perhaps Arms’ greatest achievement: successfully recreating a sound which was totally radio-friendly and yet full of integrity.
The loud, distorted, lo-fi West Coast tone dominates the album, and this is the territory where Goldstein performs most engagingly. Where he attempts a more stripped-down approach (on Fall, or the ukelele-led title track) the results are less successful. With their simple, wheels-on-the-bus bubblegum melodies and fuzzy production, these tracks bring to mind the early Magnetic Fields albums. But lacking the songwriting genius or half-decent voice of Stephin Merritt, Goldstein sounds out of his depth without the noisy guitars to buoy things along.
Lyrically, we’re in that US indie world where body parts and physical actions are used to reflect emotion, often to disastrous effect. On Eyeball, for example: “Isn’t it strange that people have eyes / That rest in their sockets so peaceful and quiet?”. Erm… not really, when you think about it. It’s best to focus on the tunes.
In Goldstein’s words, “I’d like Arms to keep lonely people company”. Seeing as emo has the lonely teenager market sewn up, presumably he’s referring to the handful of lonely grown-ups who never got over the death of Kurt Cobain. Perhaps he’s underestimating the power of nostalgia: give it another five years for a proper 90s revival to rear its head and he could be the coolest guy on the planet.