In 2010, the scrappy Chino punks in Abe Vigoda shared a producer with Beach House, tour dates with Vampire Weekend, and a cinematic ’80s revivalism with the year’s buzziest bands. With its hyperkinetic “tropical punk” draped in Pretty in Pink pastels, Crush was the most commercially appealing album to emerge from Los Angeles DIY venue the Smell and, therefore, the biggest challenge to its egalitarian philosophy. But whether Abe Vigoda were truly going for the gold was a moot point: They quietly disbanded a year later and Crush remained a hidden gem that sounded like nothing else. At least until now, as Michael Vidal and Juan Velasquez reunite as Cupid & Psyche on the alluring Romantic Music, sounding like “the next Abe Vigoda album” but with a sober, measured perspective that required another decade to access.
While Vidal and Velasquez are still mining the more populist sounds of Thatcher-era post-punk, Romantic Music isn’t going to be confused for “sophisti-pop.” The duo’s musical complexity feels born more of intuition than finicky craft, one sighing guitar line weaving into another, leaving just enough space for Vidal’s unorthodox, diffuse vocal melodies to braid through. With the exception of the engrossing chorus of lead single “Angels on the Phone,” the hooks don’t arrive through seismic dynamics or a belted melody, but rather slight nudges that lift the curtain on the uniformly dusky mood; witness the piquant chord changes in “Anxiety’s Rainbow,” or a slight shuffle in the rhythms of “Datura Sketch.” Romantic Music is at its best when its core sound inches into the ’90s and decks itself out in greyscale paisley, as if the Cure revisited their Faith-era gloom while trying to reckon with the melon-twisting rhythms of Madchester.
The reliance on drum machines lends Romantic Music a more era-specific sound than Crush, though also one that’s less distinctive. Whether it’s the nature of the project as a pandemic-born jam session or the just the inevitable result of starting over without a rhythm section, Romantic Music lacks the feverish momentum of infatuation or devastation, too often locked into a muted, narrow range of timbre and tempo.
While Abe Vigoda’s tropical punk roots invigorated this often ossified aesthetic, Cupid & Psyche do so from a more subtle and lyrical standpoint. Vidal’s actual vocal range is somewhat limited, but his voice is an emotionally expressive instrument: Every longing note carries a yearning for a new world and the promise of a glimpse of it, the very dynamic that has drawn American audiences to this style of music for the past 40 years. Yet Romantic Music has practical aspirations for tangible and spiritual connection in the present. The somber production underpins the foundational contrast of light and dark energies—anxiety is a rainbow, serenity a pit—though the synths and reverb tend to gloss over Vidal’s more touching turns of phrase, scrutinizing the false allure of the internet or empty nostalgia. On the opening title track, some of that scrutiny appears directed at Abe Vigoda itself. “It takes time but you’ll get over/Reasons why we won’t make it,” Vidal croons, perhaps skewering a past version of himself, one that truly believed “I’m gonna change your life with my music.” Instead, from its word and deed, Romantic Music is the exact thing its humble origins promised, a labor of true love.
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