The knock against California X is that they wear their influences too loudly on their sleeves (or, as on the cover of their 2013 debut, on their sleeveless denim jackets). Aside from sharing a zip code with J Mascis, the Amherst, MA, four-piece has stoked that criticism by working once again with Dinosaur Jr. sound engineer Justin Pizzoferrato on their second album, Nights in the Dark.
It was easy to write off California X as a good album that would have been great if frontman Lemmy Gurtowsky’s vision pushed beyond the boundaries of Western Mass. California X may have rocked harder and with more sincerity than pretty much everyone else in 2013, but they were faulted for a lack of pretension. This is where we’re from, and this is what we love, they seemed to say, and we’re going to love it as loudly as possible. This has always been the key difference between California X and their ‘90s alt forebears; the latter were fueled by feigned indifference, while the former could hardly care more. Theirs is vital music, though its template may be frayed from overuse.
Nights in the Dark picks up where its predecessor left off, but its scope and ambition are impressively wider. Thankfully, this sounds like it owes more to the band’s natural growth than it does to any hamfisted attempts at forcing innovation. The title track opens with a wall of fuzz that pumps air into the room before an emphatic guitar melody finally turns on the lights. The song is positively anthemic, and Gurtowsky couldn’t mean it more each time he repeats the central plea: “Just give me time/ ‘Cause I don’t want to leave anybody behind.”
The album takes a less aggressive stance on ensuing track “Red Planet”, which mines ‘70s power pop for its tastefully interlaced guitar melodies. Not counting the out-of-nowhere acoustic interlude “Ayla’s Song”, the tempo on “Hadley, MA” might be the slowest the band has played at to date. But what initially comes off as apathetic eventually serves as a nice contrast to Gurtowsky’s guitar, which rips through the morass with a fervor that lands somewhere between frightening and euphoric.
The back half of Nights in the Dark is heavily instrumental and makes clear the band’s growing ambitions with a pair of two-song suites that have their moments but might be too indulgent for their own good. California X stumble here more than they did on their cohesive debut, but higher highs come wrapped up with the lower lows. A piano even makes it into the meditative instrumental “Garlic Road”, and it’s enough to make you believe there’s a long, healthy life beyond all those Mascis comparisons.
Essential Tracks: “Nights in the Dark”, “Hadley, MA”, and “Blackrazor (pt. 2)”