Little Big League
by Chad Jewett
These Are Good People, the debut LP from Philadelphia indie quartet Little Big League, was crisp like warm air. Its songs were translucent and sunny, and Michelle Zauner’s hooks, on songs like the excellent “Lindsey” floated to the top, bright and salient. The album was a wonderful opening statement from the band, confident and startlingly complete. Tropical Jinx, the band’s sophomore LP, is crisp like a pile of leaves, and just as rich, autumnal, and motley. And if this seems to imply that the record is also messy and diffuse, that’s because it is, the crystal luminousness of Good People is replaced with something more remote, introverted, and fraught. But Tropical Jinx also makes a virtue of that opacity, requiring but also rewarding several listens, deeper consideration, and a bigger imagination. At first Tropical Jinx seems aimless, then it seems beautifully uncertain, then captivatingly conversational.
Zauner, whose melodies were sharp and electric previously, now stretches out with longer lines and trickier patterns. The outsized hooks of “Lindsey” and “Summer Wounds” have been supplanted by a certain hushed, ruminative quality. Certain songs feel like extended sighs, almost free-form in their ups and downs. One might be frustrated that there’s nothing as economic or confidently tuneful as “Year of the Sunhouse” here (or a bit perplexed by certain lines that seem to stretch then fade out, incomplete), or one could be fascinated by Zauner’s new sort of realism, the way these more impressionistic melodies gesture toward ennui, uncertainty, and independence.
The best moments on Tropical Jinx use that foggy, elliptical atmosphere to their advantage. “Tropical Jinx”, the album’s most athletic, upbeat song gets Zauner’s best hook and does something interesting with it by baking it under a layer or three of rusted SST-era guitars. “Deer Head” is non-committal, but breezily so, its sluggishness managing to appeal instead of vex. “Property Line” spends its four minutes in a woozy middle tempo, but it’s held aloft by an especially tuneful performance from Zauner’s and is buoyed even further by a Walkmen-esque horn outro that fills in all the extra space to be had around the band’s admittedly perfect, scruffy two-guitar haze. Indeed, the extent to which Little Big League have perfected their sound – two earth-toned guitars panned hard-right and left, a loping, melodic bass, economically purposeful drums – is the album’s one clear victory. Yet there’s also interest in the moments where the quartet push back against their own inclinations. The evocatively titled “Take It To A Weird Sad Place” is largely content to trickle and wash atop a sere drum machine, but Zauner uses the space to her advantage (her vocal here is smoky and wistful, like a solid piece of character-acting) and the song’s glacial pace and flat topography don’t prevent it from being compelling mood music.
Elsewhere, “Old Time Fun” and “Boyish” wed some of the diffused Teenage Fanclub-esque power-pop of Little Big League’s split with Ovlov to the sort of blissed-out weirdness you might find on the rarities disc of a Pavement reissue. And if “Boyish” suffers most from the vaguely non-committal streak of melodies on offer here (the song’s second verse feels especially disinterested) it rescues itself by instead committing to ambiance and texture. As is the case with the entirety of Tropical Jinx, the song sounds great, even if it also sounds exhausted and in search of a mooring central hook. Ultimately, that aura of weariness, and the rich, textured way in which a certain sort of washed-out guitar can capture it, has its own sort of beauty. In that sense, Tropical Jinx is a success, a half-hour of carefully sculpted mood, an autumn hangover to follow the giddy spring of These Are Good People.