The thing that makes desperation the irresistible, exotic beast that it is, is that it’s on a collision course. Ride with desperation long enough, and you’ll inevitably crash into wish-fulfillment (which only resets the process), maturation, or death. It’s a sad truth, but it’s sure fun while it lasts.
The Endless Jags, the six-piece rock band from Portland, have been riding that beast for a few years now. They stormed out of the gate in 2012 with a six-song EP of scorching guitars and weird sonic textures that balanced roughshod, hook-forward, Broken Social Scene-derived pop with the energy and melody of the more evolved punk bands peaking before the collapse of the music industry. It was a style that felt like it came naturally, bolstered by the band’s secret-sauce element (they’re actually splendid fuckin’ musicians, most of whom spend more time playing in projects that please far more people than this one ever could), but anchored by the strident call-to-arms that make any rock band worth paying attention to.
Yet while the EP was designed to gutpunch its listeners, a few songs could wither after repeated listening due to the Jags’ adherence to indie-rock orthodoxies and pop formulas—a confusing note for a supposedly nihilistic rock ‘n’ roll band to hit. Yet that’s precisely the faultline these guys are straddling: one foot in the terrain of the mainstream, the other ankle-deep in filth.
Sell the Banquet, the band’s first proper full-length, basically digs them deeper in both directions. Its ten songs are smarter, more cohesive, and a bit more playful than its predecessor’s; more boastful of its propulsive rhythm section and the
excellent vocals of twin songwriters Oscar Romero and Tyler Jackson; and reaffirm every note of the battle-cry choruses that anchored their songs two years ago. Yet despite this apparent step toward maturation, the Jags never—and I don’t know how they pull this off—but they really never cave to the vapid, fatuous purr of mainstream appeal.
It’s hard to say which side of that fence could claim opener “Boxcutter,” an upbeat party-starter which frames the good times as a spirit quest of chemically-aided peaks and valleys, but it’s a more solid, swaggering pop song than anything written two years ago. “Surfer” is even more satisfying, riding D.J. Moore’s organ melodies into a sequence of serious splashes in the chorus. And “Ready to Die” is the album’s best song, with Romero letting down the shroud of his typically obscured lyrics to hoist up the last flicker of a romance before it flames out.
Jackson’s songs, peppered throughout the album and typically more ruminative than his foil’s, are fine chasers to Romero’s stiff, disaffected howls. “Fifty Grand” assembles all its scattered, impressionistic lyrics into a glorious and seriously Bob Pollard-y chorus. “Next Summer on the Ice” turns its mathy, fuzzed-out verses over to Justin Brady’s limber basslines and explodes into the beach-pop reverie Jackson summons in his Foam Castles project. “The Loop” tends to bloat the album’s second act a bit, trying to stretch a nifty-enough vocal melody into five-plus minutes of guitar parley. But the back end redeems, as the fierce blip of “Decameron” segues into the big payoffs of the noisy, six-minute closer “Hexer,” no clearer demonstration of a group of friends wishing the high would never end.