Bad Bad Hats
Psychic Reader (Afternoon Records)
“Lake rock” is the genre listed for Bad Bad Hats’s debut LP, Psychic Reader, on iTunes. The assignation is probably part joke, part nod to the band’s Minneapolis roots—the trio met while they were students at Macalester—but it’s also an apt, if unusual, description of their developing sound, too, which is summery and ebullient.
There’s something ephemeral about Psychic Reader, which runs a slender thirty-two minutes. The songs are bright, quick shots of energy, mashups of pop, indie rock, and nineties alternative, both the sunny and noisier varieties. It’s the perfect album for a road trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, with someone who gives you butterflies riding shotgun. (You’ll have to play it a few times if it’s a long drive.)
On this first full-length effort, Bad Bad Hats build upon the sound they started crafting on their five-song EP, It Hurts, also released on Afternoon Records in 2013. From track to track, the trio plays with trumped up synth and stripped down acoustics, demonstrating that while they are a young band, they’ve got a hold of their sound and are working through the possibilities. The constant on Psychic Reader, from beginning to end, is Kerry Alexander’s silky vocal performance. Her voice is sweet and finely tuned, never wandering far above or below what seems to be her natural register, but she’s got expressive range, conveying desire, anger, and equivocation, as often as she does innocence and optimism.
Alexander, along with bandmates Chris Hoge and Noah Boswell, have got the ethos of a three-piece garage band down, appearing in promotional photos and music videos (like this one), in sweaters, Doc Martens, and unpretentiously mussed hair, like three kids who just want to play music and play it well.
The youthfulness of the band (they’re all mid-twenty-somethings) is played up by the opening track to Psychic Reader, “Midway,” a perky sing-a-long, complete with hand-clapping, dreamy vocals from Ms. Alexander, and an unshakably catchy guitar riff. The Bad Bad Hats walk a fine line in the song, delivering the sugary and predictable pleasures of pop, while promising more. The subject matter is love lost; the recurring refrain, “God, I could have kissed you,” but the chorus hinges on the incisive “I cried like a baby/I tore you apart,” insisting that these three can do more than sing pretty.
They make good on their promise in the next song, “Shame,” which roars with greater percussive force, and more than a little bit of noise. This song, too, is about unrequited love, but it’s got tougher edges. Words that begin as a plea—I don’t want to be afraid of you always running away—wind up a threat, after a riotously fun guitar solo that helps the song pick up in intensity.
As an album about love, Psychic Reader hones in most consistently on how much goes unsaid between lovers: current, former, and would-be. “Things We Never Say,” an understated, acoustic track, circles around this theme most obviously, beginning, “You never say you love me.” But the song doesn’t stay lovelorn: “I bought this dress to spite you / I wear it cause I hate you / Cause you don’t know what you got / And I’ll wear it to your house / and I’ll let you take it off.” Here, the relationship in question is a sexy, messy power play, and Alexander—it’s difficult to hear these songs as anything other than somewhat autobiographical—exudes both resolution and resignation as she sings over plaintive, shimmering acoustic guitar.
“Say Nothing” picks up this theme of stalled communication between lovers. With a slow-burning energy, the song accuses, “You’ve seen the ending from the start of it/So cut the act and let’s get on with it.” This kind of direct address is a hallmark of most of the songs on Psychic Reader, but this time it’s more command than appeal: “Stop / Let me be the one to say nothing,” punctuated with (more) hand clapping for good measure.
The title track, one of the strongest on the record, is also about missed connection (“I was in the room while you were leaving”). It’s got a quiet intimacy to it, with swirling “oohs,” and the seductive, low chug of the bass, the song is a secret being poured directly into your ears. The chorus executes the sort of plucky melody that comes up again and again on the album, but it’s the verses, with their atmospheric, woozy synth, and the breathy sultriness of Alexander’s vocals that make “Psychic Reader” a standout.
Speaking of sex, female desire is the other unnamed glue between these songs, which announce themselves as more innocuous than they are. Never explicit, and hardly ever direct, the sensuality on Psychic Reader takes the form of lines like, “I want to be the one who says goodnight,” or “Make love to me easy.” However subtle, the hunger is there, track to track in the compulsion to kiss a boy, to hold him, to have him treat you right.
Sometimes the desire comes across as more sanitized and youthful, a crush rather than Great Love, as on the wistful “Joseph.” This acoustically driven track is solid, and its most surprising moments are when Alexander lets her voice move ever so slightly away from the airiness and velvetiness that she floats between elsewhere on the album.
“Cruella” indulges a bit more in this play with boundaries. It’s downright danceable for the most part, but it’s also expansive, the arrangements verging, briefly, on the orchestral, the instruments coming to the fore, while Alexander’s “oohs,” beautiful, but by now familiar, take a welcome backseat.
The anthemic “Fight Song” is proof the Bad Bad Hats can compose satisfying, addictive pop rock with moves they have nailed by now: verses that lilt like a lullaby, an ecstatic, shouty chorus, a single-ready guitar solo. But it’s the lyrics here that pull punches. Alexander sings, “I wish I’d catch fire / Like oil in the ocean,” and it’s almost like a wish for the album. There are no flare-ups on the record from Alexander: her vocals are unfailingly beautiful; she’s never off-key, she doesn’t growl or howl; her voice is clear as crystal, it never breaks—but you can’t help wonder what would happen if it did.
The penultimate “All-Nighter” is one of the most exciting songs on Psychic Reader, although it’s one of the mellowest. It’s melancholic, with no shortage of gorgeous sighs from Alexander, and sincere, mesmeric in its simplicity. It has the makings of a great closing track, but the LP finishes on an unexpected note with “Spin,” the closest to quirky, alt pop the Bad Bad Hats get to on this album. There’s hand clapping (again), the most turned-up synth of the record, buzzy guitar, a chorus that feels unabashedly nineties. It’s a playful whirl of an ending, a taste of that lake rock they proclaimed to be making.
“Spin” is proof that the Bad Bad Hats have the capacity to surprise with their sound as much as they do with their lyrics, and it’s exactly this plasticity that make these three an act to watch. Psychic Reader already has more than enough charm and smarts to gratify any fan of indie pop or rock, but the Bad Bad Hats may win our full-on devotion later, as they further test the boundaries of what they can do. After all, if there’s one thing lake rock ought to be, it’s fresh.