It’s been a while since I’ve found myself intrigued by newer “emo” bands. I mean, obviously I’ll never stop loving screamo or emotive hardcore, but the glut of derivative, boring twinkle bands that flood the touring circuit have left me feeling cold for a couple of years now. That being said, this year has provided me with several of my favorite releases in the genre since I first got into it so many moons ago. From Darkle to Origami Angel to awakebutstillinbed, it’s been an amazing year for ambitious, creative, and arresting emo/sparklepunk/twinkle/whatever records. Distant Relatives, California Cousins’ third release, and their first for rising DIY champion Chatterbot Records, is no exception.
When I first sat down to listen to this record, I found myself slightly put off by the beginning to the opener, “Aspirin.” It kind of seemed like the type of thing that had been bothering me in emo so much lately– pleasant, and melodic, but bland and passionless. However, a couple seconds in and I was proven immediately wrong. The drop hit me like a freight train, and I was stunned by the variety of styles being incorporated: on one hand, there are the sparkly lead guitar lines, vulnerable lyricism, and plaintive vocals we’ve come to expect from the scene; on the other, there are sharp shrieks reminiscent of, say, Jeromes Dream, in conjunction with stomping, on occasion complex rhythms straight from the playbook of bruising hardcore crews like Vicious Embrace and Inclination. The latter is not exactly a shocker, as the members of California Cousins have also spent time in the gnarly, short-lived but hard-hitting Knife Culture. Much of the record’s strength comes from the way that these two styles clash and mesh, often producing something beautiful yet simultaneously antagonistic.
When you think you’ve got California Cousins figured out, though, they pivot straight into the second track on the record, and one of my personal favorites, “Hold This Coupon.” I may not always be up to date on what the kids are saying these days, but I feel fairly confident in saying that this song fucks. It would be easy for California Cousins to stick to the style that they introduced on “Aspirin,” but “Hold This Coupon” boasts one of the most infectious vocal hooks of the year. It’s not massive– quite the opposite, in fact, the chorus is one of the smoothest and least rowdy moments in the song– but I’ve been unable to get it out of my head since the record’s release.
From there, the band jumps back into frenzied chaos on “7 Minute Freestyle,” before pulling back in the closing moments for an absolutely mesmerizing passage, with a gorgeous guitar melody complemented perfectly by the bouncy bass, as well as the drums, which remain both energetic and completely danceable throughout the record’s duration.
The lockstep in which these musicians play with each other is completely admirable. Having been around for a few years, California Cousins are slightly more experienced and adept at playing with each other than many of their contemporaries, and it shows whenever they delve into one of their signature grooves, such as the aforementioned “7 Minute Freestyle” as well as the face-smashing rhythmic break that immediately follows the frantic solo on “Brockport 1995” and the fucked-up quasi-breakdown during the halfway mark of the otherwise catchy and mellow late-album standout “Sand In Pockets.”
Of particular note is the production on this album, which is unique in that it buries the vocals a bit (not to the point of being inaudible, but enough to provide an air of mystery) in favor of the bass and guitar. The guitar tone on this record is absolutely fucking nasty, able to pivot from memorable twinkles to crushingly heavy riffs in an instant without making it seem like a drastic mood shift. The rhythm section is also captivating. As I already said, the drums are one of the record’s biggest strengths because of their eminent danceability in the face of some of the songwriting’s dynamic changes, but the bass is just as prominent as the guitar here, and for good reason. Lots of fans of this genre like to gush over the intricacies of the twinkly guitar bits, but the bass lines on this record are just as involved and catchy, often completely carrying parts of the song that would otherwise be less kinetic (providing the thrust and drive for future crowd-favorite “Extendo Weekend”) or just flat-out empty space (the distorted bass fill right before the payoff in “Sand In Pockets” is something to behold).
If this record has one slow moment, it may be the closer, “Camp Shorts,” a tidbit of an acoustic track followed by some sound collage-type stuff. It’s cute and lo-fi, but lacks the strength or ambition of songwriting and presentation that the rest of the album has in spades. It’s not really something to worry about though, since the track is so short (the album as a whole flies by in a quite brisk 26 minutes).
I am not in the least bit exaggerating when I say that California Cousins have played a big role in revitalizing my interest in sparklepunk/what-have-you this year, along with a select few others. Their sound is fleshed-out, exciting, and executed with tons of precision and heart, and I guarantee when they come down to my neck of the woods this October that I will tear the roof off the place. Check out Distant Relatives here and tell ’em Ellie sent ya.