Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: ME REX Triceratops / Stegosaurus

Myles McCabe has a thing for prehistoric creatures. McCabe, a London-based singer-songwriter specializing in heart-on-sleeve indie rock, decided to call his band ME REX. His early EPs under the name, 2016’s Wooly Mammoth and 2017’s Wooly Rhino, bookended an odd-and-ends comp called Brontosaurus. Another EP called Pterodactyl followed in 2018, and then the project went dark for 2019 — presumably so McCabe could focus on Fresh, the poppy emo band where he plays sideman to Kathryn Woods. But ME REX have returned in a big way this year, and so has the dinosaur nomenclature. At the end of August the band came stomping back with the wildly impressive Triceratops. They’ll follow it up this Friday with another exciting four-song set called Stegosaurus. In a move reminiscent of Courtney Barnett’s grand introduction The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, the esteemed UK label Big Scary Monsters is packaging Triceratops and Stegosaurus together, essentially combining them into a hell of a full-length album.

McCabe also has a thing for messy, anxiously wordy confessionals. His lyrics are sculpted with poetic precision, but they come spilling out of him in rapid outbursts, like his mouth can barely keep up with his feelings: “And success is to revenge is as irreverence is to medicine/ As downing Diet Coke and NyQuil is to quieting your head again!” To accompany these screeds, he and his bandmates have triangulated a sweet spot between dour grey-skies UK indie rock and no-holds-barred emo catharsis, so that each track becomes a little indie coming-of-age film unto itself. The most obvious parallel is Los Campesinos! and their frenetic frayed-nerve anthems, but there are traces of Frightened Rabbit’s hearty howl-along folk-rock and Allo Darlin’s charming homespun indie-pop as well. McCabe cites WHY? as a key influence, and though I struggle to hear any of that project’s genre-blurring hip-hop and electronic experiments in ME REX’s straightforward guitar rock, the band certainly shares Yoni Wolf’s knack for quirky unpredictability.

On early ME REX releases, McCabe’s screeds were backed by muddy bedroom-recorded arrangements that dulled his sharp wordplay. Fortunately, as the project has become a proper band — also including Phoebe Cross, Rich Mandell, and his Fresh bandmate Kathryn Woods — his neuroses have become electrifying. The difference is obvious on “Rites,” a minimal Wooly Rhino track now rendered as a full-fledged rocker on Stegosaurus. “So much for everything being different, so much for everything changing,” he sings sardonically, but the new recording’s higher fidelity and more dynamic backing really have yielded a transformation. With a hard-hitting rhythm section lending power to his snaking riffs and fuzzed-out chords, McCabe’s embarrassing admissions come bursting from the speakers: “‘Cause it’s harder saying sorry than it ever was to lie/ Or getting stoned before I black out so that I don’t start a fight/ It’s just way easier to do that/ Than it ever was to feel this/ Easier than being strong and unafraid of weakness.”

In this louder, more vigorous context, ME REX maintain a pleasing human intimacy. Rather than blow out his interpersonal drama to an epic scale, McCabe’s songs remain grounded at the scope of daily life, constantly pressing up against the constraints of the finite mundane just like their protagonist. Working himself up into a whirlwind of frustration and regret, McCabe consistently scrapes transcendence, at least for those who recognize themselves reflected back in his foibles. He has a gift for rendering a tangle of depressive syllables as a triumphant sing-along hook: “Alienate my friends/ At some point they all just quit asking questions!” he and his bandmates cry out in harmony on a song called “Heart Of Garbage.”

Along the way there are depictions of breathless physical encounters alongside admissions that “the sex is weird and it only makes us sad.” Snippets of other people’s dialogue work their way into his narration, such as the exasperated friend on “Tannika Pacts” who laments, “Myles if you cry ‘wolf’ one more fucking time it’ll see you right!” Even when grasping for the metaphysical, he returns to the interpersonal: “There is no true north/ There is no real truth at all/ Oh headaches and nausea, someone to talk to/ I was that person, I am not anymore.” Even when paring back the sound to mostly just his voice and an acoustic guitar on “Blooded Stud,” he is a more accomplished and commanding presence — ironic for a guy who can’t seem to stop singing about fucking up.

Though songs like McCabe’s run the risk of tipping over into self-parody, he’s self-aware enough to poke fun at his most miserable, self-obsessed impulses rather than glamorize them, and he writes about his own dysfunction from a place of hard-won stability. In 2012, just as his band St. Spirit was building momentum, McCabe stepped away from music, got sober, and spent time working on his mental health. In ME REX’s official bio, he claims he started out solo because he was so disillusioned with rock-band life; only after he joined Fresh did he start to believe “it actually was possible to organize practice, writing, and touring in a way that wasn’t soul destroying.” On the user end, at least, ME REX’s music has the opposite effect. By analyzing his mistakes to death, McCabe has tapped into a vibrant new musical life. He seems to understand that when the agony of defeat becomes a communal experience, it starts to feel like victory of a sort.

Triceratops / Stegosaurus is out 11/27 on Big Scary Monsters. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Miley Cyrus’ as-yet-unheard Plastic Hearts.
• The Smashing Pumpkins’ CYR.
• Billie Joe Armstrong’s No Fun Mondays.
• Madlib and Karriem Riggins’ album as Jahari Massamba Unit, Pardon My French.
• Hatebreed’s Weight Of The False Self.
• Jenn Grant’s Forever On Christmas Eve.
• Ane Brun’s How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow.
• Radkey’s Green Room
• Suzie True’s Saddest Girl At The Party.
• Spandau Ballet’s 40 Years – The Greatest Hits.
• Tim Burgess’ Ascent Of The Ascended EP.

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