Graded on a Curve: Eureka California, Crunch

Eureka California, an outfit formed in 2007 by guitarist-vocalist Jake Ward, resides not in the West Coast municipality of their moniker but in the Peach State town of Athens, GA, a college berg long-noted as a locale where folks ditch class and even drop out to make music. The records Ward and drummer Marie A. Uhler create there imbue tangibly punkish spirit with spurts of ‘90s indie rock; their very solid new album Crunch trumps stagnation by raising the energy and paring down the sound to bare essentials.

Eureka California is unlikely to win awards for originality, though it’s clear that deliberately striving for uniqueness isn’t high on Jake Ward’s list of artistic goals. However, this isn’t to suggest the songs he conjures with longtime cohort Marie Uhler are lacking in personality or beholden/inferior to the music that shaped them.

A group with numerous former third members and currently a fully-functional duo of Ward and Uhler, Eureka California does a nice job avoiding the elements of any one particular stylistic predecessor. Frequently cited influences such as Pavement and Guided by Voices are thankfully implicit instead of blatantly telegraphed; in fact, some may not hear them at all. That’s the case between this writer and the oft mentioned impact on Eureka California from The Replacements.

I’ll add that both of these lobes are familiar with the vast majority of Ward and Uhler’s oeuvre. The story begins in 2011 with a likeable 4-song 7-inch “Modern Times,” but a greater splash was made via Big Cats Can Swim, that LP issued the following year alongside a split cassette with NJ/NY band Lame Drivers. Then in ’13 arrived a single shared with Liverpudlians Good Grief featuring different versions of two tracks from the tape.

And now here’s proper second album Crunch, an effort again released by dependable neighborhood label Happy Happy Birthday To Me. This newfound two-piece configuration presents immediate differences, though as Eureka California are a duo out of necessity rather than conception (nothing here is comparable to the hard rock power-boot of twosomes White Stripes, Black Keys, or Wolfmother) the changes aren’t a break with what came before. Interestingly, as membership has decreased the volume level has gone up. In turn Ward, already an emotive vocalist, has gotten even throatier.

Eureka California’s prior output detailed a melodic sensibility remindful of ‘60s pop; in combination with their distorted qualities it occasionally earned them the description of lo-fi. That’s not off target, but Ward and Uhler regularly seem aptly assessed as a non-trite pop-punk exercise, and with Crunch this circumstance is more apparent than ever. For some, getting introduced to the outfit through this LP will be a deal breaker, specifically due to Ward’s aggressive shout-sing approach. Things don’t really settle down to a sustained contemplative environment until the end of each side of the record.

On the other hand both “#1 in the State” and “How Long Till the Medicine Takes” come quickly; Crunch is a very succinct disc brandishing tracks of (mostly) equal concision, though that’s not a radical departure from Big Cats Can Swim. Opener “Edith (One Day You’ll Live in a Bunker)” chalks up less than 90 seconds in length, but that’s ample time to establish punky atmosphere through Ward’s impassioned versifying and trim, gruff guitar.

The track is exceptionally catchy, strings emphatically strumming, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it was written on an acoustic. The nearly as brief “No Mas” retains the melodicism but marries it to a noticeably chunkier structure, riffs flailing as Uhler smacks the kit hard and precise, her work on the cymbals one of the song’s strongest traits.

“No Mas” is just as vocally intense, though Ward wastes no time in eschewing the monochromatic. He starts the lengthier cut “There’s No Looking Back” in an agitated conversational manner before swiftly erupting into full-on belting, his pipes up to the task. And due to the return of the slightly off-kilter strum (and a nifty solo later in the tune), it’s the first of Crunch’s moments to heavily underscore those ‘90s indie references stated above.

At the 50 second mark the pop-punk also asserts itself, with the ragged edges sufficient to escape this sub-genre’s overly formulaic norm. In terms of ‘90s comparisons, the latest album finds Eureka California spitting out shards of din fleetingly reminiscent of another duo, namely Kicking Giant. This is detectable on “I Bet You Like Julian Cope,” even as the pop-punk attributes bring it closer to the Lookout label roster than the more “avant-garde”-leaning Kill Rock Stars stable.

As the song titles here illuminate (to say nothing of the cover photo), like certain other entities on the Happy Happy Birthday To Me imprint, Eureka California evince a humorous side. But if not excessively serious or downright angsty, Crunch also isn’t a yuk-fest; far from lightweight in the lyrical department, the words provide a rewarding endeavor, and the manner in which Ward sings them on “Sneaky Robby” and especially “#1 in the State” reminds me (maybe coincidentally) of Doug Martsch.

“Sneaky Robby” does flirt with being just an exceedingly worked-out amalgamation of absorbed ideas, in this instance briefly bringing ‘90s Merge Records band Guv’ner to mind. But it’s also crisp (and yes short) enough that the similarities never grow into a major fault. In blossoming to nearly three minutes, the unabashedly popish aura of “#1 in the State” connects like a legit plug end of a prospective single.

Perhaps “This Ain’t No A-Side,” the readymade shout-along that begins Crunch’s flip, could serve as “#1 in the State”’s backing. It and “Twin Cities” continue to reinforce the pop-punk architecture, the latter cut as riff-laden as anything on the record. “Happy Again” lessens the tunefulness for a lean slice of late-‘70s Cali punk pummel wielding crafty touches (e.g. the distant opening guitar bit).

This leads into “Art is Hard,” one of Crunch’s stronger numbers and at nearly four minutes the lengthiest on the album. As on Big Cats Can Swim, Eureka California places the longest song in the penultimate position, a maneuver that works mainly through shrewdness of construction and delivery. It easily sidesteps predictability.

Furthermore, there’s a spot exactly halfway through “How Long Till the Medicine Takes” where Ward and Uhler, had they so chose, could’ve kicked the song into high gear. Smartly, since the tune’s not a natural ripsnorter they decided against the possibility; tearing into its fiber wouldn’t have been a flagrant miscalculation, but the distinct ambiance that unfolds to close the LP is appreciated.

Eureka California has moves, a few of them used with regularity somewhat reducing their music’s overall impact, but they also possess astuteness that results in an appealingly consistent listen. Crunch documents the growth of a stimulating contemporary act. It should be very interesting hearing where they head next.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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