Bully’s first record, Feels Like, although fairly generic and narrow in its focus, got by on the strength of its conviction. Its touchstones (Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, Pixies, Breeders etc) were impeccably grafted together and, on songs like ‘Too Tough’ and ‘Brainfreeze’, the melodies were just distinct enough to suggest an identity. While that may sound like faint praise, the drudgery of the unwelcome avalanche of Nineties nostalgia meant the record stood out easily.
With Losing, the challenge was always going to be one of growth. Bully can’t sell the same record twice and retain the conviction that carried them this far. Rather than build, however, Alicia Bognanno instead spends the entire LP trying to convince us she doesn’t give a shit, dragging a wall of dirt along the way. The melodicism of Feels Like struggles for air under the murk, and is regularly jettisoned in favour of Bognanno’s anguished howl. While that’s effective, the accompanying music doesn’t offer enough variety to distinguish one song from another without a strong melodic base. The best riffs are the same ones we’ve heard from Kim Gordon for the last 30 years, or any of her No Wave contemporaries. For example, pick any riff from UT’s Griller and play it back-to-back with one from Losing. Aside from the fact that they’ve arrived filtered through In Utero and Sleater-Kinney, there’s no difference.
As the recurring thread that runs through the scenes and eras from which Bully draw, it’s too easy to chalk this up to Bognanno’s time with Steve Albini. Her skill behind the desk is entirely her own, and it’s never in doubt, but the songs simply aren’t strong enough to elevate it. The rage they’re trying to sell isn’t backed by anything other than apathy and bad rhyming schemes (“I want you either way / even though you can’t stay”). A quick glance out the window or at the TV is usually enough to convince anyone that the world is in a particularly ruinous state, and it’s infinitely more likely to produce better lines than ”you don’t like it when I’m angry / tough shit, learn to deal”. Retconning a slacker aesthetic and signing to Sub Pop isn’t enough to grant a pass. And for those who mocked Bognanno by comparing her voice to Tommy Pickles from Rugrats, there’s a lot of ammunition here.
Only ‘Not the Way’ successfully turns the record’s Sonic Youth base camp into something wholly memorable, using jarring lead lines and elongated screams to offset a driving, precise rhythm. There are brief moments scattered elsewhere, like the Veruca Salt breakdown harmonies in ‘Running’, or when ‘Seeing It’ deftly throws in a detuned sludge riff to knock the whole thing off course, but unlike ‘Feels Like’, There’s no reason to listen to Losing over any of the records it cribs from. Or The Cribs, for that matter. And in the last two years, bands like Skating Polly and Hands Off Gretel have released much better albums than this, with the same raw materials.
There’s nothing inherently bad about anything on Losing, but nothing’s going to stick around, either. It’s also not enough to say that those who don’t remember the Nineties are the record’s intended audience, so originality doesn’t matter as much. That’s insulting to both band and listener. The internet exists, after all. ”I am trying to stay focused”, Bognanno implores at one point. The results don't really reflect that effort.
4Aidan Reynolds's Score