Graded on a Curve:
Kiwi Jr.,
Cooler Returns

Cooler Returns is the sophomore full-length from Kiwi Jr. and is additionally the Toronto four-piece’s first record for Sub Pop. The titular suffix and the releasing label are representative of an unreservedly indie state of mind, with the use of the affectionate nickname for New Zealanders insinuating that the album’s 13 songs will dig a little deeper than the expected norm. Theirs is a bright, catchy, energetic sound with an undeniable likeness to Pavement, and if Kiwi Jr. don’t reach the heights of that ’90s indie behemoth, the resemblance is one of shading rather than mimicry. Cooler Returns is out on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital January 22.

Kiwi Jr. consists of vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Gaudet, bassist Mike Walker, drummer Brohan Moore, and guitarist Brian Murphy (he of Alvvays). To get right down to it, the similarity to Pavement is directly related to Gaudet’s singing, as the man frequently just sounds like Stephen Malkmus. In fact, at a few points, Gaudet really sounds like Malkmus, though more often there is a liveliness (that can border on exuberance) that brings tangible distinctiveness to the table.

Some whose ears were active during Pavement’s original tenure may wonder if there is a difference between Kiwi Jr. and ’90s acts of a decidedly Pavement-like bent such as Silkworm and The Grifters. Well, there is, and it’s absorbed through Cooler Returns’ straightforward pop sensibility, a consistent facet that is inextricably tied the Gaudet’s spirited approach at the mic.

And instrumentally, Kiwi Jr. are tidy rather than disheveled (as was Pavement’s wont). But this pop inclination maybe isn’t such a surprise for a band whose 2019 debut Football Money came out on noted Canadian indie label Mint (distinguished for releasing or co-releasing the first few records by the New Pornographers). The connection is plainly discernible in the strummy, then punchy, then anthemic opener “Tyler,” but it’s really driven home in the infectious but muscular “Undecided Voters.”

After hearing, it’s unlikely many will be ambivalent, as Kiwi Jr.’s sound, like so much indie (or subterranean) pop before it, encourages either wholehearted fandom or dismissal. “Undecided Voters” and the next cut “Maid Marian’s Toast” also share a little harmonica that brings to mind the more ’60s-inspired ’80s indie pop and North American jangle pop bands. In its opening seconds, “Highlights of 100” even recalls Buddy Holly as channeled through Bobby Fuller and then bursting forth like a band of young upstarts attempting to conjure a big nightclub floorboard pogo stomp.

Along with vocal harmonies that are unabashedly pop, “Only Here for a Haircut” spreads out instrumentally via slide guitar and keyboard, solidly setting up the title track, which alternates betwixt a huge guitar hook and stretches of strum momentum and along the way moves from an almost New Wave-era guitar quirk into a dual axe solo section that’s briefly reminiscent of ’70s Southern Rock.

It’s weird but highly effective and followed by the likeable but lesser “Guilty Party” and the borderline too-catchy but wordy (a la Silkworm more than Pavement) “Omaha.” One thing about Kiwi Jr. is that the songs mostly conclude in under three minutes, so it doesn’t take long to get to the appealingly melodic riffing of “Domino.”

Ah, the wordy. Cooler Returns is also lent cohesiveness through Gaudet’s lyrical thrust, which is loaded with namedrops and, carried over from their debut, recurring allusions to sports. On “Nashville Wedding,” this results in Gaudet combining Malkmus circa his first solo album and Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” An unusual combo, but it works, somehow. After a slow rise in volume, “Dodger” is more straightforwardly jangly, though the keyboard used can at times sound like a toy model.

As a hook in “Norma Jean’s Jacket” sounds very familiar (though to Kiwi Jr’s credit, I can’t yet identify from where exactly), there is a danger that these guys could eventually put too much emphasis on the swiping of moves. For that matter, Gaudet might potentially go overboard with the lyrical smarts. But for this album, which wraps up with the full-bodied and structurally multi-faceted “Waiting in Line,” the ingredients are in the proper amount.

Although not a knockout, Cooler Returns does further establish Kiwi Jr. as a worthy extender of indie rock principles.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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