Raleigh, N.C.’s Whatever Brains came to my attention via a series of refreshing 7”s a few years back. “Rapper’s Delight II” and “Saddle Up” were grand statements with cultish charm, expansive and deliberate ideas for pop and noise compressed down to five or six minute stretches, proud and fearless of modern alt-pop decoding, precisely not what you’d expect from a bunch of guys who seem to have the ability to coexist between the immediacy of punk and the widescreen reach of concepts bigger than themselves. The band has found itself an unlikely home on Sorry State, a regional label predicated on mostly hardcore and punk offerings by bands like Double Negative and Shards (which features most of the members of Whatever Brains).
Whatever Brains is the long-awaited (by me, anyway) debut album, and the first time we get to see what this band can do on a larger canvas. The question sharply turns inward, as the group both advances and conflates expectations herein. Since they’d likely do the same (as judged by an interview I found), I am going to be “that guy” and provide you with a list of bands and their best qualities, each of which help define the Whatever Brains sound.
The Mae Shi - Pioneered the existential crush method of Internet-age musical consumption, and threaded it all with stop-on-a-dime coordination, quite a feat in the live setting
Trumans Water - Threw tantrums on bent guitars and pushed as far away from continuity as they could; released dozens of records
The Pixies - They were like right there, staring at the future
Arcade Fire - THX-Approved
Polvo - One of the most inventive and irregularly melodic guitar bands of our time
The Country Teasers - Can consume large quantities of whatever you put in front of them, play okey-doke cowpoke rock with some brilliantly acidic moments
The Fall - Allowed all of this to exist
Whatever Brains hammers the main tenets of those bands to fit its own shape, borrowing liberally from all of them, played with an internal fire and oppositional hatred of the Southern morals that surround them. In pinched, nasally voices, guitarists Rich Ivey and William Evans offer up a withering retorts like “I pray your son gay / And your daughter marries Black / And your husband joins the Taliban,” affronting the polite hatred and wrong-headed fears of their neighbors and townsfolk with cheek-tongued vitriol. Elsewhere, the band tackles pedophile priests (“Ghost Urge”), and when it’s not excoriating the social climate of the South, it’s writing songs like “Cousteau on a Crutch,” in which the narrator tries to convince his woman to “strap rocks to our feet / and we’ll sink to the floor of the sea.” It’s at once a grand gesture of love — they plan to live there amidst the “petrochemical oligarchs … I’ll keep you tied up in my sheets” — and an ode to abandon. “You’re Melting” questions the effectiveness of fighting the desire to keep fighting, roll calling a number bands from their scene as reasons to maintain momentum. The frankness of many of the songs here is not to be discounted. There is an impatient, flippant quality to this band in album form that many won’t be able to appreciate, but it wears off after a few spins.
Whatever Brains’ display of creativity and ambition in the face of conservative rhetoric and retrograde social politics is a rare, if not singular, triumph. The previous singles — available as MP3 downloads with the LP — show even greater promise; acting as a companion album to the full-length, those 12 songs accentuate hope alongside melodies, before the social barometer became so completely fucked. Whatever Brains succeeds in creating a complex, synthetic portrait of gear-grinding anthemic rock and arrogant but utterly free worldviews. And it’s OK to ask them if that’s enough.