Failed Graves, the third album from the Seattle trio The Lights, opens on an impressively wracked note. “Buttons Vs. Boulders” lifts out of a squall of distorted, clashing guitars, the vocals emerging like something rushing at you from out of a tunnel. The music played by the band is sinewy, power-trio punk, but there’s a nicely anti-social component to it, and it’s enough to set them apart from many of their peers in the garage-rock landscape. The band’s earlier work balanced their rougher elements with unexpected doses of melody: their “Victims Of The Pleasures Of The Sense Of Hearing” was an impeccably catchy Modern Lovers-esque shuffle, and the title track anchoring 2006’s Setting Sun alternated jangly sections with bursts of unabashedly brutal distortion. Failed Graves delineates those distinctions more starkly, then bridges the gap with embittered vocals and a discreet cynicism.
The title of Failed Graves nods in the direction of bands’ lifespans and breakup rumors, and its structure contains a feeling of rebirth — or, alternately, a rush towards blissful oblivion. The album’s first half is unabashedly harsh: the first words snarled on “Deathless Distances” are “Because of a lack of funds,” and that approach makes for an odd juxtaposition with the bizarro-world summer-camp yarn spun by the lyrics.
The band’s vocals go a long way toward making this album work. Guitarist Craig Chambers doesn’t have a conventionally melodic voice, but it’s well suited for these 11 songs. His is a voice that leans toward the debased side of the spectrum, somewhere between Marks Arm and E. Smith. And given that that voice is delivering pronouncements along the lines of “Better feel it, better find it, better fuck it while you can,” a sense of world-weariness and more than a little barely contained anger ride alongside it.
After four wiry, abrasive numbers in which Jeff Albertson’s bass dominates the mix, the shift to “New New,” with acoustic guitar ascendant, is almost as jarring as anything that’s come before. The album’s second half finds the band in a more uptempo mode, the catchier songs delivered with a shout and a snarl, as likely to head for sludgy riffs as anthemic choruses. It’s not all that surprising that the album ends with a cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” or that Chambers appears to be vocally channeling Calvin Johnson. This is clearly a trio who know their iconoclasts, and who understand — as few bands nowadays do — that the way toward memorable punk rock isn’t always the most melodic one.