A reasonable first reaction upon playing GRMLN‘s third full-length (counting previous release Empire, despite the 23-minute run-time) would be to check whether one’s headphones were plugged in all the way. There was something missing in the music; something that was never a problem for power-chord flagbearers Blink-182 and The Lemonheads: punchiness. That one-two punch of awesome that makes the heads nod and the fists pump hard, where loudness edges out over fidelity. It’s the single most damaging aspect of Soon Away.
The album has a very awkward mono mix that seriously gets in the way of the crazy-good summer jams that are GRMLN’s signature. Whereas The Smashing Pumpkins used clever double-tracking and layering to make the guitar roll of Cherub Rock so memorable on Siamese Dream, the production of Soon Away fails to get off the ground and gives each song a highly anticlimactic feeling. Cloud Nothings pulled off grainy lo-fi with aplomb because the grittiness of the production directly mirrored the pain of the lyrics, the solemnity of the screams, and the iniquity of the melodies. Soon Away doesn’t have much in the way of any of that. Mid-album highlight Awake is a pretty fantastic cut that could definitely fit on a Cloud Nothings release, but tracks like Fader and Avoider just want so much more than what’s delivered.
Garage pop punk bands of the early ’90s (a time that bandleader Yoodoo Park blatantly adores) brickwalled the hell out of their recordings on sloppy vinyls and CD-Rs because that’s all they had, but a lot of these albums worked because they were so genuinely earnest in getting whatever three chords down. Soon Away sounds purposely recorded at a low fidelity, and it’s painful to hear because everything begs for so much more sound. The percussion is highly stilted and compressed, something that brings down the otherwise anthemic Crawling Into You. The most grievous offender is Yamero, whose tremolo-picked guitar choruses beg to be heard much louder and at a much greater fidelity than delivered. The title track’s intro is way too subdued for its power.
The two major exceptions are Numb and Faux, both of which move to hair-flipping good hooks. Either strike that delicate balance between fidelity and rawness to give that beach-radio-in-the-sand quality. Summer finally shines through the murkiness of production and lyrics like “if you love somebody else” – something so universal that it really doesn’t hurt to say it again. The percussion compression is there (and seriously plagues the entire release), but the break will make you want to jump into the sunshiney world that Park inhabits.
Park certainly has a hell of a voice – think of NOFX at their most melodic, or even John Feldman of Goldfinger. It’s a nice quality that totally shows his Californian roots. It increases the enjoyability of the title track; although the guitars are blurred to an annoying degree, that refrain “I’m turning out the light / and I’m blurring out the lines” is sang loud and powerful.
He’s also an adept songwriter: Awake is a smart synthesis of the pop punk aesthetic and the soul-crushing emotional pain about which every twentysomething hears but for which scarcely any twentysomething prepares. White Lung//Black Lung also has a bit of lyrical play that makes Green Day‘s Dookie still fun after over two decades, with the chorus line “these white lungs / they turn to black / they turn to black / tonight” hitting just enough power to make them matter.
It really is a shame that the production is so muddled, because Soon Away has some incredible moments that are marred by the sheer inability of the fidelity to convey what GRMLN and Park are feeling. If you can look past the production flaws, then you’ll find Soon Away a pleasant affair. Otherwise, this kind of garage aesthetic simply isn’t suited for that towards which GRMLN strive.