For those who came of age in the ’90s, a spin through Wing Dam’s sophomore album on local powerhouse Friends Records is like slipping into old long-john-bottoms-under-cutoffs. Fuzzy post-grunge guitars, quietLOUDquiet song arrangements, chugging rock attack, bop-along melodies, sonorous male/female vocals—it’s like a Clinton-era rock checklist. Launching into a litany of all the older bands and alt-rock hits one might hear echoes of here could conceivably run out the assigned word count. Even the album’s title, “Shifter Bliss,” scans a bit like a slogan from a sticker flaking off an old Sonic Youth road case.
But calling out the likely influences visible all up and down the trio’s collective long-sleeve-T-shirt-under-a-short-sleeve-T-shirt sleeve doesn’t invalidate the way Wing Dam assimilates them, makes them its own, and pops them back out as hooky guitar-pop nuggets that sound pretty good right this minute, no matter how else they sound.
Opening track ‘Software’ shows off the skill set to good advantage. The verse is a one-two punch, with each line of tentative croon chased by a line of crunch and background-vocal reinforcements; the chorus, such as it is, is an instrumental refrain, and at one point guitarist/vocalist Austin Tally whips out one of the neatest tricks there is: a guitar hook that snags you as much for its extra-muzzy chorused texture as its staccato melodic content. A minute and 45 seconds = all done. It’s breathtaking in its immediate sing-along impact and pop acumen.
The remaining eight tracks unfold with similar verve. Vocalist Sara Autrey’s cool alto beguiles on its own, but twined around Tally’s harmonies on the hurtling ‘Nothing’s Frozen’ or the cymbal-bashing distortion pile that is the chorus of ‘Right Through,’ it gains power and volume like someone stepped on a stompbox marked “Awesome.” Drummer Abe Sanders not only drives these sharp tunes, he makes them switch lanes with ease, his nimble parts transforming the basic bones of ‘Counting Steps’ into a kind of mini-suite. A surprising number of the songs stick to mid-tempo, but that only allows Tally and Autrey’s guitars and voices more room to surf the contours of the indelible melodies and countermelodies of cuts like ‘Don’t Call Me.’
Wing Dam offers eight variations on the same basic theme here and doesn’t wear out its welcome, although few songs stand out from the others. It’ll be interesting to see what else the band can do, and whether its songwriting can push beyond the basic sonic charms on display throughout “Shifter Bliss.” But for now, this is windows-down summer pop like you didn’t even know you needed. Or, as Autrey and Tally belt at the climax of ‘Nothing’s Frozen’: “The water’s fine/ dip your toes in.”