The Gloss

In the dozen or so years that Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy have been playing together—first in Ought, and now, with drummer Evan Cartwright, as Cola—their music’s defining characteristics haven’t changed much. The two still specialize in a knotty, post-punky brand of indie rock embedded with cryptic yet conversational observations about maintaining one’s sanity in the modern world. But when you compare Ought’s 2014 debut, More Than Any Other Day, to the music Cola are making now, it’s like listening to completely different musicians—and the contrast goes beyond the fact that their current trio seemingly has no use for a keyboardist. Ought always sounded like a band in flux, unfurling their tightly wound sound for deeper explorations in drone and groove, while Darcy wielded his mercurial voice with theatrical aplomb. But Cola’s second album, The Gloss, is a model of focus, precision, and economy—the sound of players who know exactly who they are and what they want to do.

Listening to The Gloss feels a lot like sitting in on a practice session in a windowless jam space the night before a gig—a nervous, claustrophobic tension hangs in the air, but everyone is completely locked in and buzzing with energy. Unlike like their pandemic-spawned, file-swapped 2022 debut, Deep in View, The Gloss was recorded as Cola came into their own as a touring act, and as such, the album foregrounds their intuition and rapport and keeps their spoken-word piano-jazz proclivities at bay. But while The Gloss renews Cola’s membership in a fraternity of prickly, leftfield guitar rock that runs through Television, Sonic Youth, and Women, they use their discord less to agitate than ingratiate.

These tracks are largely confined to three-minute bursts, but each exhibits that special sense of discovery that results when close friends instinctively follow one another’s lead, and a simple chord change or strategic pause can instantly transform a song’s essence. Cuts like “Tracing Hallmarks” tick all the boxes on the contemporary post-punk checklist—jabbing guitar lines, propulsive rhythms, staccato phrasing—but they also shift into surprisingly congenial choruses that lend Cola uncommon lightness and levity. On “Albatross,” Darcy sings, “I’m a lame horse with an optimistic mind,” making explicit a theme running throughout: In a world that’s constantly trying to beat you down, staying positive constitutes an act of radicalism.

Like Stephen Malkmus, Darcy favors language that’s equally evocative and enigmatic, routinely blurring the line between the sardonic and sincere. His most pointed social commentary comes through on “Down to Size,” which suggests an urban activist version of the Strokes: the song revisits the topic of gentrification previously referenced on Ought’s 2015 slow-burning masterpiece “Beautiful Blue Sky,” but at a more frantic pace that mirrors the ruthless breakneck speed of development. More often, he takes delight in overarching metaphors that simultaneously obscure and amplify his intent, whether using journalist lingo to frame a couple’s communication breakdown (“Pulling Quotes”) or invoking film-set imagery to highlight the performative aspects of daily life. (“My taste is avant-poor,” he cheekily declares on “Pallor Tricks,” and somewhere, a slumming trust-fund kid weeps.)

If Darcy’s lyrics require putting in some work to decode them, the band makes musical immersion easy by consistently striking the familiar balance of dissonant sound, disjointed melody, and bone-dry production that defined indie rock’s late-’80s/early-’90s golden age, before synths, string sections, and festival-baiting choruses became de rigueur. When you hear Cola cruise on the perfect-sound-forever groove of “Nice Try” or unleash the clang and clamor of “Bell Wheel,” the effect is as poignant as it is powerful. The Gloss is a reassuring reminder that, however many iconoclastic rock heroes have recently fallen, their legacies are in good hands.

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