Strange But Nice
Step-Panther’s second album is more unique and relatable than the first, finding a universal heart in songs stoked by weed and comic books, writes DOUG WALLEN.
What do you need to make an album truly relatable? Some safe meeting ground between the specific and the universal is a good start. Step-Panther’s second album references everything from monster movies to under-the-radar Marvel superheroes and smuggles in some Game of Thrones-inspired lyrics that will warm the cockles of anyone who’s ever thrown a d20 in Dungeon & Dragons. But it never quite goes overboard into the nerdy and arcane, or strays too long from a heartfelt core that anyone can connect with. The song ?Zombie Summer? sums it all up: despite undead-themed lyrics about smelling flesh, it repeats a key sentiment from our collective youth: ?I hope this summer never ends.?
Stephen Bourke’s trembling vocals amplify the relatable themes, whether the Sydney trio are plunging into musty stoner riffing or the shiniest of jangle. Step-Panther have already detoured in a handful of directions before this, from slacker indie rock and doom-y garage to strong whiffs of surf and ska, but Strange But Nice corrals their many impulses under the firm guidance of Big Scary’s Tom Iansek. Give Big Scary’s [radio-friendly experimental pop](/releases/2001223), he might seem like an odd fit for this band, but his production – undertaken at his own Melbourne studio – completely suits these songs. He doesn’t gloss them up or turn them into kitschy genre creations; he just opens up their individual personalities.
Those personalities can be quite distinct. The album opens in a creaky, intimate whisper over meek nylon-string guitar, during a short introductory title track recorded less than an hour after it was written. The closing ?Number One Fan? brings the record full circle to end on a sweet and quiet note as well, but the songs in between tend to spike that sweetness with noisy playing and messy emotion. Drawing us in with a hooky drum pattern, lead single ?Nowhere? is half reprobate and half sweetheart, with Bourke singing about storming citadels and doing ?a ninja roll into nothingness? before the song caps with metal cues swiped from a Megadeth tune ([according to Bourke](http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/homeandhosed/blog/s4095227.htm)). Yet it’s swimming with gorgeous guitar melodies too, and the stoner/slacker identifiers on its surface can potentially downplay how dark, detailed and funny the lyrics are.
?It’s a relationship song bombarded with gamma rays.?
Likewise, ?It Came From the Heart? finds a parallel between the heart and the jugular, nodding to late-night monster movies while indulging in an ultra-twangy, REM-esque hook. It’s a relationship song bombarded with gamma rays and turned into something altogether different. From there, ?User Friendly? is instrumental for the first full minute, channelling early Weezer and recent Jeff the Brotherhood, while ?Up and Go? is another piece of stoner-pop par excellence. Bourke’s fractured singing nears a J Mascis croak on ?Candy in the Sky?, which turns a weed-stoked epiphany (?Stars are candy in the sky?) into a jangling pop song where the other half of Big Scary, Jo Syme, sings backup. Even more pleading and vulnerable is ?Parallel? (?Parallel/I wish you well?), but its breakup-without-rancour theme still sneaks in a geeky closing line: ?Live long, prosper, fare thee well.? Also having it both ways is ?Something Must Be Done?, pairing its scuffed street-rat urgency with the gleaming drag of its guitar licks.
As for the more obscure moments, maybe you need to be a fan of [aquatic comic characters](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namor) to appreciate ?Namor?, but if the lyrics will be most funny for comic fans – ?Prince of Atlantis/indifferent to humanity? – there’s plenty of feel-good fuzz for everyone else. It’s like a more specific cousin to Weezer’s [Kitty Pryde](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KittyPryde)-referencing classic [?In the Garage?](http://www.youtube.com/watch’v=V0rV88Ev-og). And despite ditching the sample from an old Marvel cartoon it originally had at the start, the song still manages to go full stoner in the bridge. ?Let Loose?, meanwhile, borrows the ?mirror on the wall? iconography from Snow White_ and peaks with the line ?I’ll leave it to the Viking lords to seal my fate.? At every step, these songs present a more unique Step-Panther than we heard on 2011?s promising but somewhat anonymously garage-y [self-titled debut](http://step-panther.bandcamp.com/album/step-panther-2).
I’ll stop short of calling it an album for everyone, but it really does cut across a wide swath of feelings and subjects that belies its persistent scrappiness. ?Who even knows which genre movie we’re in?? sings Bourke in the album’s most telling line. And really, what does it matter if these are pop songs, or metal, or garage? If they’re about love or about scaling castle walls? Through and through, Strange But Nice feels homemade and from the heart, like a high-school notebook scrawled with the names of favourite bands and superheroes. Of course it’s rough around the edges, but it’s all the more special for it.