It doesn't have to be complicated: While there's nothing wrong with noodling and navelgazing or making ornate pop, rock music is a raging adolescent, driven by hormonal revolution and youthful insouciance, shouting "baby, baby baby" because it doesn't know any better. It works, too. Not everyone's been a textbook-clutching post-rocker, an overly sensitive twee popper or a devil-horn wielding domestic beer drinker. But, at some point, we've all been kids who innately understood Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me."
Though they're a little more Black Flag than Buddy Holly, there's a sloppy, rudimentary straightforwardness to Americans in France. That's not to call their debut, Pretzelvania, simplistic, though. Actually, the Chapel Hill trio plays with a great deal of skill, shifting styles (punk, post-punk, ballad, droning space rock, peppy rave-ups) with the precision of an Indy car shifting gears coming out of a caution flag. But their ragged, kitchen-sink experimentalism is far from pretentious, striking a playful, clowning tone that doesn't take itself too seriously.
"Mkele Mbembe," for instance, serves as one of the more illustrative examples of American In France's process and charms. Opening with an atmospheric jam shrouded in pot smoke, it slowly rises toward the title chant. They bridge into a jagged new wave shuffle with a tweeting synth and chunky garage guitar, as Josh Lajoie squeals something about shining "a light into the heart of darkness." His joy recalls Jad Fair and Half Japanese until a crazy break introduces an ascending guitar line that sounds half-cadged from a '70s AOR rock station. It all dissolves suddenly into a fuzzy drone, returning to the space jam. "We're taking Ted Nugent. We're taking the Mindfreak. We're going to take Charlton Heston," Lajoie informs, in an endearing bit of lunacy.
More immediate and engaging is "Ballad of Brad and Angie," which proves the perfect punky heat sink for AIF's cultural anomie. Driven by a four-on-the-floor punk beat and clanging guitar blasts, it comes on like early X as they offer a piss-take on Hollywood's first couple, Brangelina. Silly contrapuntal guitar breaks linger like the Roddy Piper fight scene in the middle of They Live before blasting back into the song in "Roadrunner" fashion with the line, "Breaking news! New hairdos!"
Americans in France stock the whole album with those sorts of oddball tracks: "Cold Cold Heart" alternates a haunted lope reminiscent of the Palace Brothers with a rattling, racing rock jealousy. "Does he play you his new songs?," Lajoie sings. The churning post-punker, "Make It Feel Better," smolders and writhes like a nasty hangover, while "Mister Fister" is a pulsing punky opener. Lajoie incorporates the band's name into the lyrics, then explains, "I want to live in a vacuum/ This place is a bathroom," indicting all the "bullshit capitalists and selfish socialists" he'll leave behind with his new ride.
In that context, "Liking You," an aching organ-fueled paean to attraction in which Cook sings lead, is the most unusual moment here. Cook's airy, multitracked vocals fill the song like smoke in a dive bar (soon to be illegal) as she confesses her affection. It builds like a crush and recedes in a rush, leaving a sweet aftertaste, a respite from the nervy rock all around.
Of course, it's not perfect: Hooks are scarce. Lajoie's vocal range is limited. The songs shimmy through their paces in a herky-jerky manner.
Fuck it, though: Pretzelvania possesses a vibrant, crackling energy rife with such blithe unconventionality and entertaining eccentricity that it's hard to resist. Like an endearing crank, the off-putting traits are quickly forgiven for the vigor, humor and curiosity of the tales, convincing in their "can-I-borrow-the-car" rumble. Imagine the Violent Femmes getting drunk and rifling through old vinyl in the SST warehouse, and you're in the right country.
Americans in France plays The Cave with Whatever Brains and Francis Harold & the Holograms Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. Admission is $5.