Out of Ridgewood, New Jersey comes a fall record for those who find autumn-appeal in shoegaze-sounds over singer-songwriters. Massively layered with ecstatic noise-pop experiments, Big Troubles’ debut LP, Worry, is out now on Brooklyn label Olde English Spelling Bee. And it has more depth than the last lo-fi record you Mediafired.
Worry was recorded by Alex Craig and Ian Drennan straight to 4-track tape with a blown-out ZOOM drum machine from the late 90s, which Craig bought in middle school. There are Juno and Casio SK-1 synths, plus chorus and flanger pedals, but the guitar fuzz and reverb washes are mostly from 4-track tape trim and a vintage P.A. head, which Drennan inherited from his mother.
The boys of Big Troubles are clearly fond of hyper-underground indie rock from the 80s and 90s: upbeat jangle from 80s cassette enthusiasts Cleaners from Venus, dream pop/shoegaze from The Rosemarys and Lilys, Scottish indie-poppers Close Lobsters, and other fuzzed out 90s rock. C86 tape-pop and early Slumberland allusions are all over Worry, but the songs are textured and often heavy. Imagine a sugar-high J. Mascis, or a noisier Jesus and Mary Chain with some extra ‘80s-pop synth-and-drum action. (Check out their Angelfire page to gage the intensity of their 90s nostalgia.)
Many recent indie bands have opened their guitar cases to the influence of shoegaze and fuzzy-garage, letting the 80s and 90s stamp their riffs and solos with effect pedals and noise and ‘walls-of-sound.’ But while many lean on those shoegazing elements to mask easy pop songs and make them ‘edgy,’ few sculpt massive pop collages like Big Troubles. Throughout, the record builds upon the volume and sonic intensity of shoegaze that other contemporary shoegaze-tinged bands often reject. The songs are absorbing, tremendous and should be played as deafeningly loud as possible.
Roger Linn created the first drum machine in 1979, revolutionizing music for artists like the Human League and Kraftwerk, who could then focus purely on crafting great pop songs. They could take their music in new directions, rather than worry about technicalities. Big Troubles use the drum machine as it was intended—with programmed beats in tow, they modernize 90s rock by focusing on candied texture, maintaining a charmingly unpolished indie rock vibe. The underlying drumbeat adds a hypnotic thump; the guitars are crunchy swirls; the synths are neon noise; the ethereal vocals almost humanize it. They don’t clean it up or tone it down.
The title of Craig-penned opener “Video Rock” alone hints at 90s nostalgia on the brink: a messy, whirling patchwork churned from the grainy distortion of an RCA box with a broken antenna. Immediately, “Video Rock” is an urgent culmination of the entire album: the crazed pulse of frenetic, high-pitched synths, paired with light vocals and a slow-beating machine. Sounds like waking up from an awesome dream; starting your day in slow motion with sun blaring through synthetic blinds.
“Freudian Slips” is an obvious album highlight and the most immediately striking—a highly danceable 90s pop gem with great licensing potential. The song’s lead riff is impossibly catchy. It’s music you might want to listen to via CD Walkman while bopping your head back and forth, playing Sega Genesis or watching Pete & Pete in your basement and chewing some Air Heads. There are blissy hints at Black Tambourine, nods at early lo-fi bands like Guided by Voices, and traces of sweet, radio-friendly 80s and 90s alt-rock.
“Modern Intimacy” and “Bite Yr Tongue” follow closely, while more fleshed-out and entrancing tracks range from the fast/raucous (“Drastic and Difficult) and psych-tinged (“Opposites”) to slower jams (“Georgia”) and straighter dream-pop (“Boomerang”) and rock (“Slouch”). Closer “Astrology Screen Savers” is true to name, and sounds like something you’d listen to in a high-vibin retrofuturistic rocketship. Downbeat with airy vox, the guitars loop on and on repetitively with looming vocals and huge screeches and soaring, gorgeous washes of reverb and wooshes and ticks and beats.
Ian and Alex met as teenagers at Ridgewood High School, bonding over the weirdo indie rock bands that influence their music today. The two split ways for college—Alex to NYU, where he graduated with a degree in communications last year, and Ian to Tufts outside Boston, where he is currently a student. They reconvened a few summers later, in July 2009, to record as Big Troubles. Some album cuts—including “Freudian Slips” and “Astrology”—are collaborative works that date back to their first few weeks as a band. Some were done individually in Brooklyn or Boston during Alex’s senior year at NYU and Ian’s junior year at Tufts, while others (“Video Rock,” “Georgia”) were done collaboratively during Winter Break last year, and are thus more fleshed out. On Worry, the duo’s work is distinctly more a ‘home-recording project’ than the recordings of a proper ‘band.’ The album is a back and forth between Drennan and Craig—many of Craig’s songs are the A-side-type hits (“Bite Yr Tongue,” “Freudian Slips”) while Drennan’s are generally longer and less poppy (“Slouch,” “Drastic and Difficult”).
Big Troubles have received massive blogosphere support since breaking out last July, and have since played a steady stream of well-attended shows at Brooklyn DIY spaces like the Silent Barn, Market Hotel and Monster Island Basement. A debut 7” from Brooklyn up-start Blackburn Recordings—plus two high-fives from Pitchfork via ‘Forkcast’—confirmed Big Troubles spot as a serious ‘Band-to-Watch’ in the Brooklyn-via-Ridgewood scene in 2010.
But it’s precisely those Ridgewood roots that solidified their rapid local success in Brooklyn. Big Troubles are the latest in the Ridgewood/Glen Rock, NJ indie-rock lineage, a scene that’s garnered national attention since 2007 with bands like Vivian Girls, Titus Andronicus, Real Estate, Ducktails, Julian Lynch, and others on “it”-label Underwater Peoples, who included a Big Troubles song on their Winter 2009 compilation.
Big Troubles deserve the attention, but it’s hard to doubt that their seat at the cool kids table was saved from high school. They graduated from Ridgewood a few years behind their friends in 2009 beach-pop break-outs Real Estate, who named them “Best New NYC-area Band” in a December 2009 BrooklynVegan interview. In fact, Ridgewood native Matt Mondanile of Real Estate and Ducktails apparently “discovered” Big Troubles, and advised his label Olde English Spelling Bee to sign them immediately.
The Ridgewood scene has as a lot of overlap: bands members crash onto each other like the waves of the beaches their music tends to emulate, floating between projects. The members of the Big Troubles live band also comprise the live band for Fluffy Lumbers, the lo-fi pop project of BT drummer Samuel Franklin, and they all occasionally play in live bands for Real Estate side-projects Ducktails and Alex Bleeker and the Freaks. They also party with the Vivian Girls. In short, Big Troubles have a lot of cool friends, which never hurts. Ridgewood was also recently named by CNN one of the 25 wealthiest towns in America; perhaps correlated, it’s certainly got more indie cred than your typical suburb.
With their debut record, Big Troubles are more than a strong thread in the Ridgewood fabric. Worry is, undoubtedly, one of the boldest that sphere has offered.