BACKWOODS SWAGGER Coke Weed bring low-tension, low-bluster confidence to their laid-back, and
are reaping national critical acclaim for the effort. | Jarly Bobadilla
Armed with canny cosmopolitanism and a backwoods swagger, Coke Weed are a five-piece band from Bar Harbor, and Back to Soft is their third record in just under four years. They play a style of slow and dreamy psych-rock — more American blues than British post-punk — referencing many checkpoints along the evolution of the sound. At times they recall groups like Galaxie 500, Crystal Stilts, and the Velvet Underground, though with a fair amount less melancholy. It’s a wheel that doesn’t require much reinvention, and Coke Weed more or less let it roll.
They’ve been this band since the beginning, but the 41 minutes of Back to Soft come with a fair amount more polish. The increased focus and comfort is palpable, and it suffuses these songs with a serene, low-bluster sort of confidence. Riffs are sleepier, bridges longer, and vocals less stilted. The band lay their melodies subtly, particularly on the more ambiently jammy tracks like “Sunseekers” and “Blue Flag,” and most songs are played with a stylistic steadiness that all but drains their excess emotion. In short, Coke Weed are less afraid of being boring, and they’re better for it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Back to Soft is boring. It’s just a record that indulges little in rock’s hits of expressiveness. (I’d call that maturity if Coke Weed weren’t so obviously preoccupied with other pursuits of euphoria.) It’s extremely well executed and produced; just not overly concerned with making an impression.
That said, the very first minute of opener “Sunseekers” is a thoroughly enjoyable one, a droning, laid-back riff that simmers as it’s joined by Nina Donghia’s detached, smoky-cool vocals. It sounds like one of Sonic Youth’s jams from the turn of the century ironed out into an actual pop song. By minute two we’re headlong through a noisy, stonerish psych-tantrum, a tad rote but totally convincing, and when it ultimately clears for the verse again, many could be surprised to find themselves hooked.
Even where the songs have the most personality, they’re extremely low-tension and slow to reveal. So when the minorly triumphant guitar intro of “Poison” arrives at track five, it feels like a personal breakthrough. Were they to trade psychedelics for heaviness, the trance-inducing patience of “Poison” and “Anklet,” the record’s first single, would place Coke Weed among darkly tense stoner/shoegaze groups like Autolux or True Widow. But they seldom get that moody. One of their most rambunctious tracks, “Maryanne” is a total downer anthem, all thumping tom hits, false starts, and sleepy riffs. And “Manchester,” the surprisingly bright closer, is the best kind of Coke Weed song, containing both Donghia’s eerily soothing vocals and some gorgeously lyrical guitar lines from Milan McAlevey.
Is this the sort of music that critics love more than rock listeners? Perhaps. Back to Soft is an incredibly adaptable record, one well suited for coffee shops, dusky drives, or late-night comedowns. But it’s sometimes hard to imagine listening to it with others. It values rock tradition over experimentation. It isn’t particularly dark, but neither is it uplifting. And just as over-the-top ego can become obnoxious, so can listening to a rock record so devoid of narrative or subjective emotions.