Sam Woodring currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.
It would be difficult for me to talk about Pet Fox without first mentioning another band very dear to my heart: Durham, North Carolina’s Hammer No More the Fingers. Pet Fox are the only band I’ve ever seen attempt to cover a Hammer song (if I’m not counting my old band), and are at this point the only band in the world to feature a Hammer No More the Fingers tag on their Bandcamp. Though still semi-active, Hammer were never nearly as popular as their charming, nebula-sized hooks would have you believe they could have been, and encountering a fellow fan is always a tender, if rare, moment for me.
Talking to Pet Fox after their set, they insisted that they were essentially “a Hammer rip-off band.” I completely disagree, though the two groups do have certain superficial things in common. Those would be: three members, an almost completely democratic division of labor between instruments, and the belief that you don’t need a huge wall of sound to achieve pitch perfect, deceptively complex, chewable delicious pop songs. Aside from those things, despite what Pet Fox might believe of themselves, I don’t think the two bands are a whole lot alike. Hammer was Cute-with-a-capital-C, lyrically goofy (sometimes too much so—see “Mushrooms”), and relied largely on a kind of bastardized disco groove that always felt a little too soulful and upbeat for indie rock. The territory Pet Fox stakes out on this record is darker and more sinister. Like their namesake, the band is more at home in the night, skulking around in the wash of your headlights, half daring you to run it over.
The stretch between “How to Quit” and “Grown Up” is an effortless showcase of tuneful, dextrous pop music. Singer/guitarist Theo Hartlett has a remarkable knack for twisting vocal lines that rarely repeat, but still somehow always stick like lipgloss. His guitar work is nimble and economic, using skeletal arpeggios to complement the vocal melodies in the verses, and dense, beautiful chords to underpin the choruses. It is also worth mentioning that whatever fireworks he is conjuring during the outro of “You Cry Wolf” are pretty stunning. That song is an early highlight, and affirms how just about every groove on this record rests equitably on the shoulders of all three members. Drummer Jesse Weiss strikes a balance between his more understated playing in Palehound and the unmitigated shredding he did in his old band Grass is Green with a sizzling, tastefully accented part, showing us that 7/4 doesn’t have to sound like some nerdy bullshit. His murky but never washed out production is a perfect complement to the band’s moody, sticky sound, and makes his drums sound less like drums and more like the pattering of a very pleasant evening shower with metronomic time. The only unfortunate casualty of this approach is that the vocals lose some of their sharper edges in the soup. He could also stand to chill out on the clap tracks just a little bit.
“Play Fair” follows, beginning with a fairly simple bassline from Morgan Luzzi, but when the other instruments come in, the notes he plays fall into place in a thrillingly unexpected way. The band smartly stretches out the buildup to the chorus, which contains one of the most satisfying riffs to be found on the record, so much so that it doesn’t require vocals. Experiencing a really good pop song is an exercise in trust, and it is here, nestled in these comfortably locked grooves and physically gratifying melodies, that I began to trust Pet Fox.
Trust is a hard thing to dole out, even just to songs. If and when our expectations are disappointed, we risk feelings of abandonment, betrayal, self-loathing, or any of the other many flavors of regret. When they do they deliver on those expectations, however, every section of the song becomes a road-trip pit stop at one of the McDonald’s jungle gyms when you were a kid: you’re sure it’s going to be awesome and then it is.
The centerpiece of the album, and its most trustworthy song, is the gorgeous “Be Alone.” After just the opening riff, I was ready to tumble into ball pit after ball pit of pop rapture. From the first cooing hook to the extremely classy Steely Dan-esque chord shift that happens beneath the guitar solo, I was ready to believe anything. Given that all three members of Pet Fox are songwriters in their own right who contribute equally to the material, you’d think the record might succumb to a kind of “too many cooks” syndrome, but they’re somehow able to pull the best of their instincts into a cohesive whole.
This is not to say that the record is without some minor flaws. The album opener “Staying In” is closer to Hartlett’s work in Flat Swamp, which veers more toward pop punk. Specifically, it sounds a bit like Sum 41 to me in the chorus, though it is redeemed in its final moments by Luzzi’s bass acrobatics. The album closer, the plodding and histrionic “Disengaged,” is fun and impactful, but its Thom Yorke-ian melodrama doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the material. Lyrically, the band works best in specifics, like the infectious line, “Don’t confiscate my pair of shades/That I can’t afford to lose” from “Grown Up.” “Play Fair” also hints at storytelling potential, which could give Pet Fox an angle to match the strength of their songwriting.
The economy of a three-piece rock band is enticing: less shit to carry, less “group dynamics” to deal with, fewer people to accidentally slap in the face with the headstock of your guitar onstage—just less. Speaking from experience, it’s tougher than it sounds. Songs are empty rooms, sometimes large ones, and filling them with three people requires a lot of working together, engorging and stretching yourselves to cover the surface area of the song, so nobody wonders why you didn’t just hire another motherfucker to play some chords. Pet Fox exhibit a rare equitability, which is hard to find anywhere in society, let alone in the music world. Let’s take it where we can get it.