With its seven contagious college rock anthems, Hammer No More The Fingers' self-titled, cheaply made 2007 debut EP scored the Durham power trio some minor blog buzz. Anticipation for the band's first full-length peaked anew when word spread that Jawbox frontman J. Robbins would produce the follow-up. Truth is, the Baltimore producer wasn't altogether necessary: Far from reinventing the band or its sound, Looking for Bruce instead finds Hammer rehashing and sharpening the strengths of its rookie release. That's certainly not a knock on Bruce, since the three-piece operates with preternatural efficiency and precision here, managing to make its taut machinery sound effortless and unrehearsed. Duncan Webster's melodies yo-yo alongside his elastic bass lines, and Joe Hall's limber guitar riffs spill over Jeff Stickley's economical drumming.
Much like Hammer's debut, consistency defines Looking for Bruce, meaning each song is as immediate as the last: Lead single "Shutterbug," which Webster wrote and performed in Mumu Worthy with Jesse Smith, his NYC roommate-turned-girfriend-turned-ex, now rides a warped chug-and-jangle. What was once a song to be sung together by a couple sounds like a gnarled philippic among bros these days, harmonies and angular guitars lashing against one another. "Radiation," one of the record's best moments, encapsulates all of that in just over four minutes: The tension of spiky guitar and soaring vocals gives way to the loose bounce of bass percolations and a hi-hat shuffle in the chorus. Webster and Hall chant the title during the bridge—rearranging its four syllables into an insistent six, howling "Ray-dee-ay-dee-ay-tion" in harmony—before launching into a pair of edgy guitar miniatures.
Both for its peculiar band name and for oddball track titles like "Vodka Grasshopper" and "O.R.G.Y.," Hammer's earned a reputation for its quirks. Bruce maintains that: There's a song about Chernobyl, and "Nitro" is a two-and-a-half minute ode to the American Gladiator of the same name, with a rhythm section that's appropriately beefy. "Mushrooms" is an evil twin to Presidents of the United States of America's "Peaches." The "pretty fuckin' tasty" psychoactive fungi drive the narrator's doom, vehicle of self-discovery and, in the bridge, motivation: "The only way to get out of bed is to feel inspired by elephants balancing on a wire," Webster sings.
Hammer gets serious, too: "Poison Apple" comes sandwiched between "Nitro" and "Mushrooms." A sober reflection from a twenty-something who's been hanging onto the past, Webster's refrains, "What you hear is just my fear coming clear" above the album's moodiest, most atmospheric arrangement. Were it not for a pre-chorus handclap break, guitar-crunching chorus and coda sung in triple harmony, it might sound like a departure for Hammer. So Hammer doesn't take many chances here, but proves itself a powerful, cohesive trio lining antsy rock with sharp power-pop hooks. Turns out, that's plenty for such a strong start.
Superchunk and Hammer No More The Fingers play Cat's Cradle Wednesday, April 15, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.