There may be some foolish talk about Racetrack's success being hitched to producer Chris Walla's star. Inarguably he does again on City Lights what he has done for Death Cab for Cutie, Velvet Teen and The Thermals. But the Bellingham, Washington band gives Walla much to work with, telegraphing some missed influences not heard from in a while. And, ultimately, the modest success of this album is due to the band, not just their producer.
And why not? Racetrack have caught up with a sound that is as identifiable as anything from the late '70s, yet has gone forgotten in all of the of-the-moment backward glances. Not that restive post-punk isn't great, but what about indie rock during the '90s? If Superchunk isn't the pack leader of those bands who were intelligent and still rocked incredibly hard, I don't know who is. I'll admit that it kind of rubbed me at first. Meghan Kessinger (vocals, guitar), Jackson Long (vocals, drums) and Chris Rasmussen (bass, vocals) don't appear old enough for such name checking. Turns out that Racetrack are too smart for idle weigh-ins though. City Lights undeniably captures the same wall-charging fervor that was best heard in a live club, with you right up against the edge of the stage (and with the scree of distortion sounding just as rebellious as it did in decades past).
Believe that the diminutive Kessinger is nothing less than a forcible wallop, calling-out self-important music writers and thick-headed boys who arrive at the show plus-one. She appears to be a big fan of Elizabeth Elmore (Sarge/ The Reputation), who was so able to enfold personal matters into melodic. Singing of "letters never sent" and "the ugliest traits that hide in our most deserving friends," Kessinger echoes Elmore's soft/ hard delivery. Sleater-Kinney at least the ideals and pointed guitar work of Dig Me Out are another reference point (that record pitched you back and forth between shining minor chords, driving percussion and Corin Tucker's punk tremolo). Kessinger's vocals are not as powerful, but she wrings them for all they're worth, kind of a leveling sweetness that abides handclapping before the chorus (but not pretentious musicians).
"One Step Forward" borrows from the meshing of guitars that worked so well on Dig Me Out, entering with a slim guitar line and aligning from there. Kessinger bridles with frustration over not being taken seriously: "Because 'battle of the sexes' never broke through our defenses/ When you think you're smug inside their head/ Do they just want your ass in bed?" "Do Your Homework" trades a little more on the punk-pop dynamic, with a rumbling bass line and a guitar crescendo that sounds like the "Big Close" that has been heard on singles from The Ramones to the current Lookout roster. It still works, though. Kessinger manages to sound almost sneering with her response to a know-nothing scenester: "I will not be affected by your negativity/ When you'll never be part of my scene/ And you run a shitty magazine / And now you're in a movie/ Don't get too excited, you just don't move me."
The biggest deal here, however, is the title track "City Lights." Distortion giving way to guitars mimicking first raindrops trailing down the windshield, and then an interstate car keeping pace. The energy lulls into a music box-like interlude with feathery piano chords, only to have the band ramp it up once more with cymbals splashing. Wait for it, especially that last line: "I can't find the cliché/ To get me going/ To keep me knowing / That I could do better."
Racetrack played out a lot before recording City Lights, and it's all over this record. Wanting to be in your own bed at night. Feeling like just another no one passing through. Even Kerouac scores a line in "Fingertips." Few debuts are this straight-ahead and sincere. Bristling with moments and guitar, Racetrack are slow and then not, with the requisite muscle (and caretaking).
You should hear it.