Critics will probably hate The Pink Spiders’ new recording, Teenage Graffiti. In 2003, the Nashville trio’s ragged-but-right full-length, Hot Pink, set them up as the darlings of yet another pop-punk revival. Three years later, Teenage Graffiti, which revisits some of its predecessor’s songs, is anything but punk, despite its numerable references to cigarettes, casual drinking and even more casual sex. Rock critics should really enjoy pointing that fact out. But let’s be positive: Teenage Graffiti may lack edge, but it’s a melodically sophisticated record that shows a band struggling to reconcile post-adolescent enthusiasm with the increasingly adult world of indie rock.
Indie rock, of course, has nothing to do with the Spiders’ record label, Geffen, the multi-gazillion dollar conglomerate that also features punk impersonators like Ashlee Simpson and New Found Glory. Teenage Graffiti’s production staff, too (co-producers Rick Ocasek and Jerry Harrison, along with mixers Tom and Chris Lord-Alge), is a bit long in the tooth (and fat in the wallet) to be considered independent of anything. That said, the intersection between juvenile spunk and veteran smarts is where Teenage Graffiti scores its points.
The record’s first single, “Little Razorblade,” for example, is a mid-tempo anthem to the allure of the unattainable. On Hot Pink, the song appeared as a stripped-down demo, its where-have-I-heard-that-before guitar hook an understated afterthought. But with naive lines like “Hey, hey little razorblade, girl you’re so, so serious,” that format could only maintain interest for so long. The new version adds layers of guitars, well-placed handclaps and swirling Cars-era synths. Not everyone is going to like the gussied-up version, but the flourishes push the song ahead of thousands of other lo-fi ditties currently vying for popular attention.
Speaking of naive lyrics, here’s a quibble. Just because your band has been touring the hot spots, there’s no reason to pepper your songs with references to LA and New York, as the Spiders do. You’re from Nashville, save the talk about Hollywood and The Mercury Lounge for the press kit.
But lyrics are overrated, especially where Teenage Graffiti is concerned. What matters is feel and heart, and The Pink Spiders deliver those. Songs like “Still Three Shy” make the most of catchy melodies and urgent riffs, played over three or four chords just like rock ’n’ roll is supposed to do. When production add-ons do take over, it’s usually for the best, as with “Adelae,” a Kinks-like number that feels half-complete until the (gasp!) strings appear. That song’s guitar solo, it’s worth mentioning, is a Johnny-one-note masterpiece that mimics the song’s charming, if fragmentary, melody.
It’s debatable whether or not Teenage Graffiti is a better record than Hot Pink—the former has sonic power; the latter, raucous appeal. What’s certain is that Teenage Graffiti will be more popular—with everyone but the critics, that is.