As much as independent music makes inroads into the mainstream, it’s still possible to discover bands with tremendous talent languishing in near-obscurity. One such discovery is Teenage Cool Kids, a Denton, TX band whose work over the last five years is as excellent as it is largely unknown. Their 2007 debut, the flawless Queer Salutations, specialized in a fast and infectious guitar pop that the band’s follow-up, Foreign Lands, raised to epic proportions. The strength of either one of these albums was enough to set unreasonably high expectations for the band’s third, but while Denton After Sunset never quite measures up to its predecessors, it still manages to make for one of the most compelling listens of the past year.
Passing comparisons to Superchunk and Built to Spill foreground the band’s exuberant pop sensibility, but it’s worn with an uncharacteristically caustic edge on here. The title track’s directionless guitar feedback and sarcastically singsong vocals—a mixture of self-parody and indifferent ribbing of lower-fidelity contemporaries—set the tone, and what follows is decidedly more difficult to love than on previous outings. Guitar distortion is a new game for Teenage Cool Kids, but in the hands of songwriter Andrew Savage even this imprecise tool is put to calculated use, particularly on “Kachina Doll,” whose thunderous chorus riff punctuates a meditation on nostalgia and authenticity through the image of a Pueblo souvenir, asking “Will you hide your true unexploitable ancient customs?” The customs Savage speaks of here are dead, and he’s punk enough (and sharp enough) to know that anything that isn’t is still a candidate for exploitation. Bracing, if a bit lacking in inspiration, “Zealous Convert” doesn’t mince words on the matter, though whether it’s a matter of religion or commerce remains deftly ambiguous. The song is as archetypically punk as Teenage Cool Kids have ever produced, but even this feels like a test of limits for a band whose best songs aren’t so much inflamed as they are confessional. “This is why I don’t write you letters/They don’t mention these things,” Savage assures on “Landlocked State,” on the trail of some lip-service melancholia and the growing sense that if the state in question isn’t depression, it’s at least somewhere on the border. He chooses a register to match his mood on a track that plays like an American Water outtake, bolstered by the band’s sunny signature backing vocals.
Partly cloudy pop to be sure, but the same can’t be said for “No Fragments Reach,” which is essentially a retread of “Landlocked State” without the hook. The serviceable breakup tune “Thousand” narrowly avoids a similar fate with a breezy chorus in half-time, but not without raising some alarm: At nine songs and 32 minutes, Denton After Sunset’s drags disproportionately to the rest of the band’s catalogue. While the band’s material has always hung together, it was usually out of abundance: Every riff on Queer Salutations is a breathless variation on the last; the songs on Foreign Lands often just rush into one another (it plays more like a few suites than a dozen tracks).
Denton After Sunset’s final set injects some much-needed fuel into the burners. “Volvo to a Kiss” is a glimpse into the album as it could have—and maybe should have—been: a strained, stream-of-consciousness anecdote that goes nowhere, but, on the backs of guitars in full rush, feels strangely wistful and urgent. The dirge-like verse of “Beg to Differ” is a slacker feint for a huge, messy chorus that threatens to shake everything that came before to pieces. Just as the band begins to look at itself, the curtain falls with “Beyond the Grasp of Guilt,” a punchy nose-thumbing at fame that nevertheless fails to spare the messenger: “Meet all of your heroes/And find that they are all assholes/Just like you would be too/If you were someone to love.”
It seems as reasonable a signoff as any for a band whose fiercely independent ethic has kept them as honest as it did anonymous. And, evidently, broke: Their label’s money problems delayed the album’s release more than a year, during which time band members parted ways and put Teenage Cool Kids on indefinite hiatus, in all likelihood making Denton After Sunset their last. Savage has relocated to Brooklyn and continues to record with new projects Fergus & Geronimo and Parquet Courts, but with a few exceptions nothing so far has matched the immediacy of his work here, a formidable collection of songs even among superior predecessors.