If you would like to know how it feels to have your brain lining peeled like a grape, spend a few days in our nation’s capital. Washington, DC is a beautiful city, a place of blindingly white historic monuments and precisely run all-ages spaces and very good Ethiopian restaurants. It is also a demented Kafka nightmare-scape. To attempt to go anywhere by car, during daylight hours, is to go willingly into insanity’s hot, clammy, chattering embrace. Traffic circles abound, and sometimes they seem to be looped into each other, like Audi emblems. There is a grid to the streets, but it’s a baffling, nonlinear grid, a grid designed by alien mathematicians. Gentrification proceeds at an alarming rate; don’t turn around, lest you find out that the homey dive bar that you walked out of, minutes ago, has been magically transformed into condos. All the buildings are short. Nobody can afford an apartment, even in the closest Virginia suburbs. And thanks to recent events, you can be reasonably certain that many of the cars currently clogging up 495 — more than before, even — are occupied by people who make a great deal of money by actively working to make the country a shittier place.
All three members of Flasher, the great young indie rock band, are lifelong habitués of DC and its environs. They know this landscape. They know Rock Creek Park and summer Fort Reno afternoons and those few spots in the 9:30 Club balcony where you can sit down and still kind of see what’s happening onstage. They are current cogs in the DC machine, restaurant workers who haven’t been able to quit their day jobs even after becoming Arctic Monkeys’ labelmates. (All three of them have worked at Comet Ping Pong, the Northwest eatery where some of the most bizarre undercurrents of DC life recently collided in hallucinatory and violent ways.) If they stay in DC, maybe they’ll never quit their day jobs, no matter how successful their band becomes. They seem to know this. And Constant Image, their full-length debut, feels like an ode to the torpor and inertia of present-day young urban service-industry life. It is an album rife with fatalism, with blank-faced acceptance.
“Go,” the album’s buzzing headrush of an opening track, is all about snorting coke with coworkers after getting done with a long shift — or, at least, that’s what I hear in it. (Flasher’s lyrics are oblique enough that they could imply a lot of different things.) Other moments on the album are full of dazed, intense little epigraphs: “Laughter in this century is a misery afterglow,” “It’s not like I had a reason for leaving you / Thinking I could fix it if it wasn’t for Adderall,” “History, how’d you get so mean? / Who’d you beat?” These aren’t fleshed-out philosophies; they’re the bemused musings of people who have been forced, through economic circumstances, to spend their days working as friendliness machines, who have to work to hang onto their humanity whenever they’re not working to live. Seen from a certain perspective, Constant Image works as a symphony of numbness.
But when you actually listen to the thing, it bursts with life, with purpose. Singer and guitarist Taylor Mulitz used to play bass for Priests, but he’s not Flasher’s frontman. Instead, the band has no leader, and Mulitz and Daniel Saperstein divide up lead-vocal parts like they were splitting tips at the end of the night. Voices overlap, or weave throughout each other. Hooks burst in from every angle. Constant Image is a short album, but its melodies and ideas never stop flying. The songs don’t belong to any clear genre; they’re punk and post-punk and new wave and shoegaze and classic rock all at once. When you’re listening, it’s hard to think about genre dividing lines or societal collapse. Instead, those euphoric synth-smears and sun-dappled guitar lines fill up your entire consciousness and sweep you away.
Not that long ago, Flasher were a punk band — or, at least, a band that came from a cultural context that had something to do with punk. Institutions like Comet Ping Pong, and like the venues that the band came up playing, are the product of a city where people spent years fighting for inclusive all-ages spaces and unbound-by-scene free expression. And yet the band’s (excellent) 2016 debut EP was a raw, nervy post-punk record, a record with traceable antecedents. For Constant Image, though, they’ve pushed themselves away from the sounds that might’ve come naturally. Instead, they decamped for Brooklyn and went to work with producer Nicolas Vernhes, someone who’s put in work with bands like Animal Collective and the War On Drugs. And they’ve come away with all these beautiful sounds, these layered guitar-twinkles and synth-whirrs and bass throbs, their voices piling all over each other in some kind of communal ecstasy.
The songs on Constant Image are just fucking great songs. They’re songs that would get heavy airplay on alt-rock radio in a better world, a world where alt-rock radio still exists in any appreciable way. It’s an album about hopelessness that, in its craft and its spirit, still radiates hope and joy and possibility. This is a week full of great albums, and it breaks my heart a little bit to not be writing about the new Snail Mail, or the new Yob, or the new serpentwithfeet. Those are all great, great records. I love them all. But only one of this week’s albums feels like it alters my entire brain chemistry every time the next chorus hits, and that’s Constant Image.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The let’s-wait-and-see debut project from Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghost.
• Snail Mail’s righteously cool infinity-guitars debut Lush.
• Yob’s guttural, expansive doom-prog odyssey Our Raw Heart.
• serpentwithfeet’s lush, gospel-influenced debut soil.
• Lykke Li’s atmospheric, trap-influenced so sad, so sexy.
• gobbinjr’s witty, zippy DIY rocker ocala wick.
• Lily Allen’s unflinching comeback No Shame.
• Pllush’s fuzzy, headrush-inducing rocker Stranger To The Pain.
• Tancred’s spare, sharp, emotional Nightstand.
• Spiritual Cramp’s hard, flinty postpunker Police State.
• Jorja Smith’s moody, streamlined R&B debut Lost & Found.
• Super Furry Animals leader Gruff Rhys’ solo LP Babelsberg.
• Uniform and the Body’s noise-rock collaboration Mental Wounds Not Healing.
• River Whyless’ eclectic folk-rocker Kindness, A Rebel.
• Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Adrian Younge’s soul-funk team-up The Midnight Hour.
• Angélique Kidjo’s full-length cover of the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
• Colin Stetson’s score for the horror movie Hereditary.
• The Future-produced Superfly soundtrack.
• The Get Up Kids’ Kicker EP.
• Perfume Genius’ remix EP Reshaped.