Pop is sex in a lot of ways. Tastemakers certainly use that appeal to sell music, but it’s more than that; it’s a primal pleasure, one that can be steered toward a higher ground and means or one that can dive toward hollow, even sinister purposes. What’s ideally an even exchange too often devolves into a one-way demand: artists bleeding their fans away with empty gestures, fans demanding more even when a singer’s flesh has been torn away. But everyone partakes — because it’s for everyone. That’s what a populist is at the end of the day: a voice of the people … and there’d not be people around if not for sex.
Sex Snobs are able to make the confession that many of their peers can’t in their sophomore LP’s title alone. That the Oklahoma City band was formed during a sabbatical that took founding members Alex Barnard (vocals, guitar) and James Hammontree (bass) to the Bay Area speaks to Sex Snobs’ grander ambitions. These are authentic, DIY dudes, but they wouldn’t mind if their songs made their way to more people than could fit into a cramped basement punk show. They make songs you want to sing (or scream) along to, ones that will leave you humming as much as your ears ringing. They did that in their old skin as Chud, and as Sex Snobs they are only that much more committed to the mission.
But they are distinguishing themselves, and they are only willing to meet you halfway. For every cigarette-lighter rock cut (“Ignorant”) there’s one that snuffs the flame out on your bicep (“Capital Letters”); they do as well with crowd pleasers as they do the subterranean rubble shifters, and there’s usually remnants of each in the other. It’s a consistent gamble, and Pop Songs & Other Ways to Die offers up just that: 10 lethal rounds of Russian roulette that can end in post-punk karaoke or a stab to the abdomen, beer spewing garage anthem or poison-rimmed shot glass of vodka and vitriol. It’s demented, good fun, a smile revealing half pearly white and half busted molars in a jukebox shuffle of post-midnight rebellion tales as told by crusty old-timers and snotty pea shooters alike, sometimes in the span of the same song (the admittedly split belly opener “Burnt Around the Edge/Pop Songs and Other Ways to Die”).
To its credit, Pop Songs manages to play both as a studio record and greatest hits collection, coyly popping in what feels like a career-spanning catalog (and maybe even some side projects) smoothly enough to read more as a long road journey than a roller coaster ride. There are bumps, sure. “Modus Operandi” is the heaviest pig brought to slaughter, but even in its thrash-metal flanging it feels curiously defanged in select intersections and doesn’t tilt enough off axis elsewhere to make up for it. But it navigates easily otherwise. “Black Friday” is low and sauntered until it’s not, snapping out of its fugue state in a gunshot of reverb and string-splintering power chords like Wire training for a high noon saloon showdown with The Gun Club. On “Pluto Is Not a Planet,” they take their cues from like-minded pop bands in punk bodies (Merchandise, Iceage) to show that soft jabs can land the hardest, its swirling bedroom acid trip romance a nice cushion to the bed of nails that bookend it.
The pre-grunge sludge of “Permanent Frown” nears caricature of itself, but it’s just hellbent enough to pull out of self-parody by the incinerated close. The dented metal chug of the scratchy “Happy to Be Human” acts as the album’s vinegar strokes, suitably candid and loose as it uncoils from the sweat, lust and aggression it’s steamed out to that point. The song is as close as these devils come to heavenly, a ’90s alt-rock radio anthem that gets dunked in bloodier waters to withhold any sinew of mainstream indulgence. They’ve already got their thrills, anyhow, and they’ll be back for more soon enough.