The Gradients, comprised of Charlie DY, Sammy Weissberg, Luca Ba, and multi-instrumentalist J Boxer (the closest thing the Brooklyn music scene has to a polymath), play a blend of fuzzy dance-rock and sunken-eyed new wave. The songs are heavily dosed by East Coast and DC punk, and some even take cues from those ever formative, pubescent pop-punk bands, in the best way possible. Most of all, the album seems a product of that constellation of musicians that swirl around the band. Members of The Gradients play in BLUFFING, Fiasco, Red Dwarf, Le Rug and Old Table (I’m sure I’ve missed some), but their compiled musicianship has found a final form in The Gradients, an album equally sinewy and flush, with an incredibly long shelf life.
But let’s get past whether or not I like The Gradients (I really, really do) or if the album’s even any good (again, a resounding yes), as these are the least interesting things I can say about the record. Let’s talk about what makes the album so effective.
While many bands have turned towards the experimental and/or dissonant in search of a defining sound, The Gradients have bunkered down, seemingly aware that the genres that informed their sound were not done with them yet. This isn’t to say that the songs aren’t entirely autonomous, fresh, and original; they are. What the band manages to revive is an effect, not a formula. That effect being the feeling of hearing a song on the radio for the first time, waiting, finger on the record button, for the next time it plays, and then wearing that tape out.
In fact, many of the songs on the album carry that “new-favorite-song” smell. The openers “Growing Pile,” and “Always Breaking Down” for example are catchy and resonant, but still earnest and heavy as hell. “Gradients,” one of my favorites on the album, opens with a triumphant riff, which is joined almost immediately by Charlie’s insistent bass work and J Boxer’s precisely stuttered drumming, which accent the songs mini-crescendos. Towards the end the song threatens to pull apart completely, like a car rounding a corner at amazing speeds, teetering on it’s far wheels. Then the drums kick in again, the song regains traction, and we know we’ve survived it. “Shelf” begins creeping, and builds from there, hi-hat to ride, then back again, with added layers, over and over again, until the song hardly fits into your stereo.
The last two songs on the album are the ones that really stand out though, and almost comprise a concept album all to themselves. “Pea Pod” the first of the two, is plucked on a steel string acoustic guitar (I think, I’m a drummer). Its tone is plainspoken and content, and describes domestic bliss, a hazy day spent in pleasant company. But the song is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful, for the very reasons that the buoyant moments it depicts can tear you apart. Like the song, these moments are all too brief, and as if to further establish that point, the album changes gears with it’s closer, “Boxed In”. This song’s intro is reminiscent of one of those Super Mario dungeon levels, a neurotic dread hangs over it, along with the sense that you’ve been played and that the princess you searched for is somewhere else entirely. These two songs succinctly cover the breadth of the entire album, from the lighthearted and cheeky moments of songs like “Charlie 182” (which takes after it’s numerical namesake), to the frayed edges of whatever sanity songs like “In Perspective” managed to retain. Played back to back, the effect is utterly breathtaking.
But back again to what makes the album so effective. While the Gradients are clearly influenced by previous bands – they’re not the first to play searing songs about disillusionment in 4/4—they don’t seek to emulate. Instead they use the genres as a medium with which to paint their songs about love and loss, self-control and autonomy, or lack of both, and what makes their sound entirely their own is that they take a step out of irony and pretense. The tone of these songs is neither combative nor does it revel in detachment or seek sympathy. Rather, the songs seek community and understanding, and carry a hope that they’re not alone in these experiences. If rock music is a language, then The Gradients have created an entirely new dialect, familiar in form to its precursors, but with it’s own, novel inflections.