Pen! started listening to The Zolas in 2019 during a rough and extended emotional slog through not-yet-resolved heartache, his former manager having shared with him one of the songs, Get Dark, off this very record, expressing his bafflement over the band’s choice in the music video to cut from the recorded song to audio of the woman nightwalking about, listening through headphones to the song, poorly singing the chorus, a veritable ruined orgasm. Alas, The Zolas have a sense of humour, Swooner being their third record and real proper push into proper powerpop/rock territory, as gloriously evinced by the title track, 2016s unsung powerpop hero: driving riff, dreamy synth melody, Zack Gray’s delightfully smiley delivery – listen to how he laughs as he doles out the (great) line, “That incandescent girl/of Incan descent” (preceding the equally great, “She’s the spine to our/body of friends”). The man is loving it.
The record’s best moments, however, lie sad and waiting on the three moody relationship songs, Frieda on the Mountain’s brutal opening line, “Ever since I met you it’s been nothing good” preceding a wandering, echoed guitar melody leads us into moody expressions relative a lack of confidence in, belief in the futility of one’s partner’s activism, spending one’s time, rather, city wilding, nevertheless guilt-shrouded about lack of political/environmental activism; This Changes Everything again considers one’s inexorable character, the capacity to desire so deeply and still, or because of that, ruin something, knowingly even, unable to change it, unable to change, unable to get beyond oneself, explored through climate change via resource extraction/human influence over climate metaphors – “I devoured your every nature/But inside I know you’ll never be enough for me”, “I built you into religion/Now I mine your body and refine your blood/That’s my generation”; and Why Do I Wait When I Know You’ve Got A Lover, a song all too relevant for Pen! when he first heard it, the record’s longest song, Zach Gray’s broken, West Coast melancholy carrying us through one after another ostensibly happy or gratifying image, life moments drifted through disassociated, appreciation, the sought-after ‘moment’, living in it, impossible, or reflected on hung up, anchored and flattened by that titular line, closes the record out in blues and clear, lonely nights, lonely reflections, dotted skies, a few tears choked down and back.
Elsewhere, patriarchy takedown Male Gaze, in which Zach Gray’s character describes playing a woman’s body “like a feminine Nintendo”, crazy-groovy CV Dazzle, and bouncing, chunky-synthed, happy fuck you Molotov Girls, among glorious others, help fill out a roster of impeccable indie-pop-rock songs. Not a stinker to be found, bud. West Coast, best coast.
Sort of a theme going on this time insofar as AFI’s 2017 self-titled (or The Blood Album) was another record Pen! relentlessly listened to across a few especially heavily heartached years. Pen! is on record informing the terribly unaware this is his favourite AFI record, taking the spot even from ostensible champ, Sing the Sorrow. This one, the one that contains auto-tune.
Only on one song, though: pounding, cinematic opener Dark Snow, thronging Davey Havok’s voice during soaring bride, stellar well-used stylistic auto-tune example, which pushes us into rushing, anxious Still A Stranger, shouting Havok ranting frustrated desperation: fame, success, nothing external scrapes away that blue, that oceanic loneliness, otherness, our secret, terrible knowledge we’re all alone in the world, that no one no matter how close could understand our processes, our complications, fathoms, our selves, swirling, lost; conscious man: the most-complicated dumb animal.
Elsewhere (and several excellent songs down the line), So Beneath You, Davey Havok’s big fuck you re: religion/metaphysics, features the record’s best chorus, and leads us into Snow Cats’ reflection on a lover’s expectations, and then (and then, and then – I could go on) Dumb Kids, which isn’t at all a punk song, but it’s as close as, in 2017, AFI’ll play it, which has to be about the band’s early beginnings, a driving, impossible-not-to-shout along under-3 number – the record’s entire second half is wholesale stellar; I want to smear love all over, but brevity begs me refrain. Navigate multifarious, stuttering Pink Eyes’ midnight analogies: “Not addicted to night, afraid of the morning/I awake and feel like someone is here/But I’m laying right out, going darker and darker/When my skin peels away roses appear and I’ll turn over” which give way to She Speaks the Language’s dark, violent metaphors for, ironically, describing feeling comfortable and safe, or trying to, trying to subject our insecurities, our fear, in a relationship, whispers and sinking bass, haunting synths, Havok putting the Emo in Emotional.
Recently discovered, I’ve been, evidently, out of the loop a couple years; The Zolas released a new record in 2021, aptly titled, after a five year break, Come Back to Life. Here the scope is, relative Swooner, widened, musically and topically, politically. Opener Violence on This Planet ironically, cooly critiques privileged young people travelling without making anything real of it, living without really living, divorced of perspective relative old world or new, contriving contrived poetry of their own rote lives via your Instagrams while killing the environment via plane exhaust. “Feelings are gushing, you thought it’d hurt but it doesn’t/You know there’s no repercussions, they call it eurostepping/Over and over just keep on rolling that boulder/You are a thousand-leaf clover, you are a mythical being/Twenty and travelling yeah, you’re rolling, unravelling/Super lonely and fathoming just how good that can be/Nightmarket cruising I stuff my ears full of music/What did I do to be oozing such invincibility?”
Single Yung Dicaprio, maybe the record’s best songs, inspired by Romeo + Juliet, no less, drives us dreamy-jangling through Summer nightbreeze nightdrive verse into a big, dumb, ironic la-la-la prechorus before the vibe-shift, Zach Gray shivering, squeezing feeling not without a wink into proceedings before announcing, next verse, “You’re the couture boy/and I’m the manure boy”.
Six-minute Wreck Beach/Totem Park leads us drum, bass, and synth/keyboard through widescreen reflection on Vancouver’s decaying, clubs shut down, people leaving en masse, Gray’s feeling of betrayal and guilt relative the Residential School revelations. “Cemеtery city the truth about where I grew up/Songs I loved to sing revealed themselves as requiems/A virgin place, the cleanest slate and all the whitest lies/For 27 years I guess my mind was occupied”.
Important Epics considered, a pair of the best songs on record are the both-two-minutes comparatively quaint, acoustic don’t-mind-the-haters Miles Away and drum-and-bass-driven acoustic relationship number Let It Scare You, Gray delivering on the latter maybe the record’s best verse. “Into the undertow/I’m tired of fighting, we know where it goes/I’ll learn to breathe the blue/Don’t need nobody /I’ll gеt kisses from fishes /I heard your voicе/Through the door/You’d never sung for me before/I am mine and I’m still yours”, and its sweetest, best chorus, “When you love someone/that you don’t understand/baby hold my hand/I dare you”.