Musings /// On Bully, the most exciting rock band in America

A mastermind of punk rock craftsmanship, Bully leader Alicia Bognanno (along with her bandmates) has put together the year’s most striking debut record, and maybe its most striking record, period.

Bully is one of the first Nashville bands that I was introduced to shortly after moving here last October, and in the eight months since, they have become its best. Part of this is resultant of a relentless touring schedule, sometimes as the headliner but mostly as support for major names, opening for contemporary indie rock acts like Best Coast and Cloud Nothings, along with early 2000s luminaries like Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen) and Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene). The other part of this has been the hype cycle grinding along, and now, staring down the crossroads of actually justifying the “next best thing” hype and the accolades that come along with it, Bully will be an interesting case study in what happens to a band that makes the transition from “independent” to “major.” The quotations are there because all definitions in this industry are subjective, and nowhere is that more true than with Bully, a massively talented band that is led unquestionably by a single force.

Their self-titled debut EP, self-released late last year, is notable for being almost entirely a product of vocalist/guitarist Alicia Bognanno’s skill set – from producing and mixing to recording vocals and said guitar parts. One major difference that separates those still relatively new songs and the ten that make up Feels Like is that they are now being released by Columbia Records subsidiary StarTime International, a business decision that will send Bully on an extensive national tour that will sell out many of its dates in addition to garnering them the ubiquitous digital exposure that most bands need to survive these days. The other, much bigger, difference is that Bognanno – pardon the hasty sports analogy here – is essentially the Steph Curry of modern rock music, making the leap from being the unquestionable leader of a small contender to the most electrifying talent in the field.

Though the Curry comparison puts her ascendance into a tangible and understandable light, it’s a bit unfair considering that Bognanno has to deal with the prejudices of being a female musician despite very few of her male peers (Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker comes to mind, though they’re essentially playing different sports) exacting the same amount of control over their output. Though the aforementioned Leithauser and Drew were members of two of the best rock bands of their generation, they had the distinct advantage of being the outspoken male leaders of them as well. And despite the fact that Bognanno possesses an abrasive yowl that could ground comparable vocalists of any gender in their tracks, all you need to do is look at how quickly the press turned on Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino after the release of their sophomore album (most of the complaints highlighted the fact that it was too similar to the debut) to see that it’s pretty hard for a female to catch any sort of slack in this industry. Meanwhile, Cloud Nothings stumbled to success, starting as lead singer/guitarist Dylan Baldi’s bedroom indie pop project and eventually becoming one of the more acclaimed punk acts in existence. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that their past two albums have been guilty of the same crime that got Best Coast sentenced to probation (the reception to their May release, California Nights, has been much warmer).

Feels Like album cover, designed by Esther Pearl Watson

This conversation would all be a massive circlejerk unless the record were actually something worth considering within the canon of modern rock music, and, if there’s any record that might stand out decades from now as 2015’s definitive debut in any genre, it’s going to be Feels Like. Clocking in at a shade over 30 minutes, Feels Like is a first-class example of less being more, Bognanno’s songwriting and orchestration packing more punch into that half hour than some lesser bands could manage in an entire discography. Modern film scholars relish every opportunity they can to study a movie within the context of the “auteur theory” – the concept that the director, through overseeing aspects of the film ranging from its visual style to its sound design, becomes more of an “author” of the film than its screenwriter. Applied to music, it becomes apparent that we could carry that idea over when talking about Alicia Bognanno, who wrote, produced, engineered and mixed every song on Feels Like. While she is aided ably by her band – Stewart Copeland on drums, Reece Lazarus on bass, and Clayton Parker on guitar – the only aspect of the final product that she did not apply her touch to was the mastering process.

And while each track pulses with an energy not unlike that of a derailed freight train or a rush hour thunderstorm, Bognanno seizes control with the clarity of her words every time it seems the music around her might self-immolate.

“I Remember”, one of the best career opening tracks in recent years, is a sub-two minute gut check in which Bognanno directs her veiled adoration to a person in her past. Presented lyrically in the first person, Bognanno recalls, amongst other things: “getting too fucked up”, “throwing up in your car”, “hurting you so bad”, “the way your sheets smelt”, “what makes you cry”, “that naked photo”, “everything that freaks you out” and “everything that makes you melt.” It almost feels like the listener is forced immediately to sit uncomfortably on the other side of a museum exhibit in which we’re being made to witness an example of the dissolution of modern human relationships. It is uncomfortable, but it’s something that we can all begrudgingly relate to.

Photo by Daniel Topete

Bognanno is at her best when she’s coming clean to the listener like this, the following track “Reason” coming across as a playful and loving tribute to the city that formed this band, only to reveal something more dire just below the surface: the acceptance that aging and general progress is going to eventually separate you from the people you once cared for so deeply: “My old friends come say hi / when I’m in town they stop by / we’re still the same / but we are grown / and we’d all rather just go home.”

In the same vein, “Six” is a rumination on a specific major event in Bognanno’s youth, when she broke her sister’s arm. Prodding us with more slightly voyeuristic background details, she even recalls how she broke her own arm two years later and how she tried to reconcile her regret over the initial accident: “When I was eight I broke my own arm / jumping off the top of the slide / and I know it didn’t make us even / so I slept on it for one whole night.”

The stark confessional nature of most of these songs (every single track takes up the first-person, the lyrics reading in the album booklet like unsigned diary entries) is what will win most people over. Though it seems like that approach being repeated might risk rendering the final product stale, the brevity of the record works to its advantage. With very few songs exceeding the three-minute mark, each track evokes a feeling of being shrunk down to drop in on a quick thought in Bognanno’s brain, before it recognizes you as an intruder and spits you back out.

Photo by Daniel Topete

And while much of the base upon which Bognanno paints these tapestries with the matter culled from her head rushes is referred to as being indebted to ‘90s bands like Pavement and (insert literally any other group of white dudes currently in their mid-40s here), I can’t help but think that these songs remind me a lot of the pop punk that I listened to when I was in high school. However, unlike every middling to awful Hot Topic-core band I ever paid $20 of my Jamba Juice paycheck to see, Bully actually lives up to the nostalgia that I associate with the acts of that era by updating those same angsty sentiments and relaying them in a voice that is completely unlike anything else the genre has ever even dreamed of being able to claim.

And let’s not belabor my argument that Bognanno and her band make me regret somewhat less those “glory” days of youth, because she’s a rock star for the now, a singular talent of songwriting and technical skill worth rallying around and maybe eventually casting in a light alongside the likes of Weiss, Hanna and Gordon. However, let’s not count our eggs before they hatch. Alicia’s not a rock legend yet, she’s just far and away the genre’s most exciting new voice.

Words by Kevin Brown /// header photo by Pooneh Ghana

LS Stars

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