About a year ago, I saw Vundabar play live by accident. They were opening for Palm and Mothers at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, and I came in halfway through their set while they were in the middle of “Oulala.” The Boston band immediately won me over (I remember remarking to a neighbor in the audience that it was one of the best things I had seen in a while), and I looked them up and listened to their sophomore album from 2015, Gawk, until it naturally fell out of my musical rotation.
With the reissue of Gawk at the beginning of this month comes a reminder of why I was drawn to Vundabar. Much of the energy and precision of their live show comes through on an album that cycles through dense moments of noise and quiet tension. When I saw them, Vundabar fit the bill with Palm and Mothers, the former of whom plays fun and unhinged experimental rock, and the latter who is equal parts angular and aching. The band, though, is as suited to the other bands they’ve opened for, including PWR BOTTOM and Diarrhea Planet, both different shades of noisy and wry. Vundabar can resemble all of those elements and many others—a touch of jangly, a touch of slackerish sludge, a bit of glam—making them sound at once familiar and entirely new.
Underlying all the different sounds in Gawk is a sense of playfulness. Vundabar likes to shift—from quiet guitar to fuzzy and loud; from nonchalant, low vocals to a crisp falsetto; and from weird, off-kilter verses to perfect indie-rock choruses and vice versa. In “Bust,” they jump from a finely tuned, isolated three-part harmony to a swell of distorted noise; in “Allen Blues,” they transform rhythmic, hard-hitting repetitions of “na” (think Weezer) into a quiet, fluid version of the same; and in “Desert Diddy,” a subdued first part of the chorus gives way to an explosive second half. Vundabar switches tones throughout the album, manipulating moments of suspense and release that is completely gripping.
Similar shifts happen in the lyrics, primarily along an axis ranging from don’t-give-a-fuck nonsense to earnest and confessional. “The sun is fun / The land is dandy / I only talk to dogs because they don't understand me,” they sing in “Allen Blues,” creating a kind of pop-punk nursery rhyme. The end of the verse takes a turn towards the direct, though, with, “I need to purge my urges, shameshameshame / I need an alibi to justify and somebody to blame.” In “Bust,” they turn philosophical: “I know enough to know I don't know anything.”
There’s charmingly comic swagger, too, particularly in the final song, “Shuffle,” a fuzzy bonus track added for the reissue, which includes the refrain, “I just want to hear my own voice” (sung with effects that render the singer’s voice the least clear of any vocals on the album). It’s impossible to predict where Vundabar will take the listener next in Gawk, but it’s a pleasure to have a second chance to try to find out.