Three years ago, when London trio Bar Italia emerged as signees to Dean Blunt’s mysterious World Music label, they curried niche intrigue among devotees ravaged by their foggy mystique. The world is much bigger, though, which meant that the music needed to be convincing enough to transcend online chatter—troubling, perhaps, for a group whose shadowy aesthetics tended to bleed into just-as-shadowy songs. Over the murky first months of their existence, two interpretations of Bar Italia’s sound seemed apt: tongue-in-cheek provocation akin to their World Music peers, or earnest slacker rock that only felt vapid because you weren’t listening for the right things.
During their initial stint with World Music, the group released Quarrel and bedhead, a one-two punch of LPs whose stark arrangements and compact lengths left people wanting more. Earlier this year, they signed to indie powerhouse Matador. Tracey Denim, their first album for the label, took tangible steps towards establishing an identity, as opposed to languidly tip-toeing around one. They were honing a sound—a deadpan, cut-and-dried effort shared between (very) amateur vocalists and lightly fuzzed guitars—that left a blurry trace of larger ambitions. Not only could they stand alone, but they were also willing to give it a try that lasted longer than 20 minutes.
Five months later, they’re back with The Twits, an attempt to expand on a tried-and-true formula. It’s bookish, looking-out-the-window music: foot-tappy and slightly unnerving, best consumed through faulty earbuds you have to hold at precisely the right angle to operate. The group echoes the same moody UK rock influences they always have (The Cure, Slowdive), but with a willingness to experiment that suggests they’ve grown bored of mere imitation. The result is a slackish near-hour of aspirant dorm-room rock, augmented with nerdy undertones and a teeny—dare I say too teeny—pep in their step. “You don’t realize it, hardly recognize it,” their voices tease in the record’s final minute, disembodied shouts riding eerie guitar feedback. It sounds like what the Shining twins might create with secondhand Stratocasters in a makeshift studio at the Overlook Hotel: music so unsettling, and so serpentine, that it almost feels as if it’s laughing at us.
This is still pretty angsty stuff, and per usual, the group favors themes of isolation and jilted romance. For all its crypticism, Bar Italia’s early music was rife with coming-of-age signifiers—breakup mantras, pleas for escapism, and fledgling musicality to represent fledgling adulthood. On The Twits, Bar Italia sound refreshingly ready to add color where they once left tracks barren. “worlds greatest emoter,” which packs arena-sized riffage into a pint container, feels surprisingly danceable, as opposed to the pensive half-sway the group’s output usually encourages. The other singles are strong, too: Where they used to fester in heartbreak, a steely new determinism peeks through the cracks. “Keep playing with my receiving hand,” Nina Cristante goads in “my little tony,” “’Cause you know you lost the game.”
But these swings at more memorable songs are still underwhelming, and the minimalist sound remains prone to monotony. It isn’t as big of a problem here as it has been on previous releases, but at points, the trio’s gestures feel more suggestive of a hazy past than any potential future. “que surprise” is a sluggish slow-burner whose lazy guitars stumble into one another as if drunk. The reverb-heavy guitar work on “Shoo” sounds faintly like Murray Street-era Sonic Youth, which is cool, but where Sonic Youth rode those grooves into hypnotic epics full of tension and release, this song stays in one place. Talking about Bar Italia still mostly involves talking about other bands: You may hear tinges of the Velvet Underground in their folkish fuzz-punk, see shadows of Dean Blunt in their elusive personae. At their most effective, they speak loudest to our inner music geek: Come for what they remind you of, stay for what they’re learning to bring to the table for themselves.
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