Graded on a Curve:
Upset, She’s Gone

She’s Gone is the first offering from Upset, the new band of Ali Koehler, formerly known as the drummer for Best Coast and Vivian Girls. It finds her teaming up with Jennifer Prince of La Sera and intriguingly, ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel. It’s a solid and occasionally very strong collection of tunes that initially impresses through a vivid conjuring of an intensely ‘90s disposition, but with time spent it offers deeper qualities and the possibility for continued growth.

If contemporary sounds displaying an openly and even proudly ‘90s-ish bent is what one desires to hear these days, then it’s fair to say that one will not struggle for very long in the finding. While the influence of two decade’s time ago isn’t exactly dominating the music of scene of 2013, its presence is certainly felt, and it is frequently being dished out by folks young enough to have their earliest memories reside in the era.

But where many current acts are unashamed to wear these characteristics on their sleeve, Upset take it one step further, actually managing to connect like a genuine product of the ‘90s, to the extent that if my first acquaintance with She’s Gone came while I was casually browsing in a record shop, it’s a cinch that I would’ve pegged it as some approximately twenty year old album that had somehow escaped my hearing.

Or better put, simply wasn’t heard in a context that ensured the songs would become engorged in the memory banks. Yes, unsolicited exposure to She’s Gone could very likely be absorbed as instantly familiar to ears that were of music-buying age and in fierce pursuit of aural satisfaction as the last ten years of the 20th century wound to a close. Where did I hear these songs before?

Hey, maybe a friend owned this and played it a few times at parties. Or perhaps a few of the tunes were featured on those mix-tapes a pal would periodically send from college. The title track might’ve even been on one of those giveaway sampler CDs that came with issues of CMJ magazine back in the day. As the songs pile up, She’s Gone attains a standard of quality high enough that all this familiarity might just lead a person unschooled with Upset’s background to question exactly how they ended up missing the boat on this disc in the first place.

With easy inspection however, Upset is revealed to be not an act of Clinton-era vintage but rather a brand spanking new one made up of guitarist/vocalist Ali Koehler, lead guitarist/vocalist Jennifer Prince, and drummer Petty Schemel. Some may recall Koehler as a drummer formerly of Vivian Girls and Best Coast, others will note Prince from her participation in the group La Sera, and many will recognize Schemel as the woman behind the kit for one the ‘90s biggest bands, Hole.

Even though She’s Gone is being promoted as Koehler’s attempt to get back some of the punk-derived spirit that informed her work while she was helming the drum seat left vacant by Frankie Rose in Vivian Girls, my kneejerk reaction to Upset was that their successful channeling of a ‘90s sound basically came down to the inclusion of Schemel.

To get specific, the problem befalling far too many as they attempt to exemplify sounds from another era is over-calculation. The result is that upon first hearing, the music doesn’t resonate as an authentic extension of essence but instead registers as either a false approximation or as an adequate re-creation of surfaces, which was the case with a substantial number of the oft-enjoyable groups in the 1980s wave of neo-garage outfits, bands that were surely familiar sounding but in a different manner from what’s described above.

Or put another way, they weren’t fooling anybody, though I’ll add that hoodwinking an audience isn’t what Upset’s is up to. And after my first handful of listens to She’s Gone, I simply came to a premature conclusion that the naturalness of the LP’s ‘90s emissions could be easily chalked up to how one-third of their membership had actually served as a significant contributor to the musical landscape of said decade.

In a sense it was easy to have arrived at this impression, since Upset’s inclusion of Schemel is a bit unusual, kind of like if one of those ‘80s neo-garage groups had befriended and recruited the drummer from The Shadows of Knight. But also worthy of mention is how the music Koehler and Prince make with Schemel lacks any collective winks or tangible self-satisfaction over how they’ve managed to get their sound just right.

Rather than falling directly under one prior act’s sonic sway (I’ll quickly note that the songs here sound nothing like Hole) Upset instead drive deep into a tough strain of pop-punk of a distinctively gal-ish orientation. While not overtly Riot-Grrl in temperament it does possess an analogous comportment, and that’s cool, since the ‘90s wave of likeminded gender empowered material was frankly one of the better developments of the period. In choosing to extend it, Upset is effectively an exercise in substance over style.

She’s Gone is an extremely focused, big-sounding LP that shoots from the hip. Due to how the popish songwriting and the occasional similarities of Koehler’s voice to one Juliana Hatfield merge with an enjoyably scrappy guitar sound, the music here could be accurately summarized as an unreleased and purely fictitious session that Hatfield made for the Kill Rock Stars label.

At this point I’ll add that all of this musing over how Upset successfully taps into the fount of the ‘90s probably isn’t going to mean a whole lot to a fifteen year-old simply looking for more of the good stuff as stumbled onto by spinning their parent’s copy of the Blake Babies’ Earwig. For them, She’s Gone will succeed or fail not through its relationship to the past but in what it brings to the turntable right now.

And a very important part of Upset’s success comes down to some very smart choices in presentation. For starters, they don’t betray their punk complexion by extending the record’s running time and subsequently wearing out their welcome. This is twelve tracks in just under half an hour, and just as importantly only two of the selections break the three-minute mark, with this emphasis on brevity allowing the better numbers to lift up the entirety instead of sticking out amidst the whole.

This might be their first release, but it’s a debut of veteran ingenuity, and I’m not just talking about Schemel. While Koehler’s Bandcamp website declaration “I write honest songs” can be taken as a statement on content, She’s Gone is just as much a study in form. Opener “Back to School” is all muscle and no fat, speedily detailing their impressive sense of dynamics in a just a smidgeon over 90 seconds but without blundering into a sprint for the finish line.

No, across this disc’s span Upset keep the pop and the rock well-balanced. Hooks are respected and indeed crucial but are never privileged over firepower. Instead of turning down the intensity for their most engagingly melodic cut “She’s Gone” (one that in titling the LP accentuates the trio’s self-awareness over what they’re doing), the guitars continue to riff and gnaw with gusto as vocal harmonies add a welcome range to the proceedings.

But “Oxfords and Wingtips” adjusts the angle, being a concise exploration of mid-tempo heft sweetened by Koehler’s vocals. And while her voice is easily capable of prettiness, she never succumbs to preciousness of any kind, instead employing weariness, grit and energy, so listeners with an allergy to the twee should have little problem getting acclimated here.

From there She’s Gone settles into a groove with a few lesser but still likeable songs. The ‘60s girl-group quality of “Queen Frosteen” is surely solid, but in wedding it so deeply to the template of The Ramones it falls substantially short of the mind-blowing. The same is true for the distinctly ‘90s pop-punk of “About Me,” which after more than two dozen plays will likely never completely shake off it’s opening likeness to a certain Green Day hit.

That scenario shouldn’t be taken as a putdown of either Upset or Green Day. It’s only indicative of the limits of the tune’s sonic plateau. If firmly depicting the motions of an earlier age, Upset again generally avoid and are largely at their best when not inspiring direct correlations to prior bands, as the spry chugging and sweet yet biting lyrics of Prince’s “Game Over” make plain.

There is room for exceptions however, and “Don’t Lose Your Dinosaur” is the biggest one. In cozying up close to Hatfield’s prime work it delivers one of She’s Gone’s best moments, in part because it’s quickly apparent Koehler isn’t striving for mimicry, but even more so because the instrumental intensity of the six previous tracks hasn’t been curtailed.

And it’s this dedication to a sonic ideal that insures the album’s overall success long after the time-capsule aura has worn off, turning “Never Wanna,” which under different circumstances would be only middling pop-punk, into a very good cut through conversance with the hard-charging lessons numerous units have long been swiping (whether they know it or not) from the Buzzcocks.

This is also the case with “Let it Go,” a powerful track that commences the LP’s well-done final portion. If blatant gestures of originality aren’t what Upset is up to, they are able to reliably inhabit frequently-trod territory without sounding hackneyed. As illustration, while “Tobacco” might begin with a return to a vaguely Hatfield-like zone, its quick shift into a thick indie rock racket is nicely done, in part because it makes its point in less than two minutes. But I don’t want to infer that Upset is obsessed with economy; “Phone Calls” nudges close to the four-minute mark as it explores some sturdy guitar tangles.

I will add that the crispness and inspired spark found here also details a potential stumbling block for the band going forward, with this vibrancy possibly kneecapping them into retreading the same territory on successive recordings. If She’s Gone was twenty minutes longer, this issue could’ve reared its head right now. But the intertwining string textures of “Phone Calls” shows that Upset might be already figuring out a way to sidestep the bugaboo of stylistic repetition.

As does the use of vibes (or a keyboard simulation of same) on the breakneck melodic wailing of “You and I,” the disc’s excellent closer. In regard to added instrumental coloration I’ll also note that while a trio, She’s Gone does feature bass guitar parts written by producer (and Swearin’ member) Kyle Gilbride. Additionally, in the live setting they’ve recently played with bassist Rachel Haden filling things out.

Taking into consideration that any band is a confluence of delicately managed factors, the addition of a permanent bassist might not be a bad idea, especially since it’s already a legit aspect of their sound. Ultimately though, Koehler, Prince and Schemel need not listen to anyone but themselves, for that’s what delivered this good debut album. Only time will tell if they stick together and make the necessary adjustments to bring us a great one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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