by Calley Nelson
Last summer, Nai Harvest released a sad song about not quite being right for a significant other, all while struggling to find a sense of self. The single was called “Buttercups”, placed on a split EP with Playlounge. In the attendant music video, red and white flower petals spin around in a washing machine at a laundromat, the camera occasionally cutting to the band playing their instruments on an empty street, then in a forest. One shot in particular focuses on vocalist Ben Thompson’s lips moving in front of the swirl of petals, slowly filtering into a spiral of pink. Remastered for Hairball, “Buttercups” is now suddenly cleaner. Where Nai Harvest would have once left those flowers to mold stylishly like forgotten clothes in the wash, now you can’t help but notice that they’re spotless and bright. “Buttercups” isn’t sad anymore — with cleaner guitars and more distorted vocals, it’s been transformed into a sugary pop song, frosted with top-40 production for the new record. Only those who had listened to the previous version of “Buttercups” might understand that first layer of meaning. It’s become more convoluted — for better or for worse. Like the rest of the album, “Buttercups” glazes the band’s previous difficult patches in honey.
If you respond to polished indie rock outfits like Matt & Kim (more the band’s outsized tunefulness than their sound, per se) or Jimmy Eat World, chances are you’re apt to find something to like in Hairball. It’s more or less a pop-punk record, with emphasis on the “pop”. There are some memorable stretches throughout, but you have to untangle the aptly-named album to find each stand-alone track, pulling moments out of the tangled-up whole. By the end of Hairball, we’re left wondering what would have happened if Nai Harvest had been a little more adventurous (or even more willfully difficult) in their approach, diverging from those classic structures and evenly-distorted vocal melodies.
Beyond “Buttercups”, there are a few other tracks from Hairball that would fit nicely on some summer-time playlist. “Drinking Bleach” sounds almost like a Yuck B-side, all fuzzy pedals and the persistent shake of a tambourine, Ben Thompson drawling each word behind it. “Melanie” – sounding like a cross between Japandroids and PAWS — culminates in one of the bounciest and most enjoyable moments of the record. “Ocean of Madness” borders on shoe-gaze crossed with bright guitar pop, channeling some intersection of Third Eye Blind and My Bloody Valentine, the end result blossoming into something simultaneously twisted and nostalgic. The song is the most like their previous work, proof positive that, despite their growth, Nai Harvest still has a place for their 90s influences and rumpled emo roots.
Ironically, what’s most disappointing about the release of Hairball is that Nai Harvest’s previous album, Hold Open My Head, has been stripped from Spotify in the process. Whatever their reasons (the band is still signed to Topshelf Records after all), the new absence can’t help feel like an artistic choice — the Sheffield duo might not want their previous work to inform their future, somehow making Hairball feel like a reset button being pressed. Some of that grittier, more fraught emotion may have been lost somewhere in the recording of Hairball, but what we have now is a record accessible enough for the mainstream, whatever that might be in 2015. Nai Harvest might ultimately be that champion band for Topshelf Records, the pioneers that finally infiltrate the radio — but I’ll still be dreaming of “Buttercups”.