This Denver-to-San Francisco artpunk trio of brothers Joe Pope (bass/vocals) and Jon E. Risk (guitar/vocals) plus drummer Michael Hursey serves up uncompromising, driving music in a number of directions on their debut EP. They get funky on “Pig,” a heartwarmingly old-fashioned song about the law, drone on the junked-out “Another Day” and drive straight ahead on a would-be political anthem, “Die Fighting.” Throughout, Angst manage to stay just one step ahead of their pretensions. Credit a sense of humor, exercised at the expense of some great Americans: “Neil Armstrong” is a goofy look at a space cadet; “Nancy” asks, chanting over a drum beat, “Does Nancy perform acts of oral copulation?”
The articulate lyrics on Lite Life again prove Angst’s prowess for turning politically informed ideas into mature and witty tunes. Plain sound and no-frills arrangements underscore the preeminence of function over form. “Glad I’m Not in Russia,” delivered as dustbowl country-rock, is a fairly incisive comment on the cultural divisions between the superpowers; the skittish and busy dance-funk of “This Gun’s for You” mixes up several topics but stays sharp; personal emotional issues (“Friends,” “Turn Away,” “Never Going to Apologize”) receive the same coldly objective analysis.
Stylistic variety also underpins Mending Wall, another dose of Angst’s tense and rough-edged musical simplicity, enhanced this time with noticeably stronger vocal harmonies by Risk and Pope. The lyrics are less specific and more thoughtful; individual alienation, confusion and anomie are transformed into powerful, uniquely directed songs. A cover of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” however, goes wrong, pruning the melody and bare-bonesing it into an ugly ghost of the original.
Angst took a calculated risk on Mystery Spot, engaging producer Vitus Mataré to help flesh out and upgrade the sound. It almost worked. Multi-tracked guitars and dynamic arrangements bring the songs into near-pop focus, with unprecedented melody, sensitivity, structure and vocal appeal, but atrocious recording quality (and/or a heinously bungled mix) buries them in a flat, muddy swamp. Pope and Risk continue to reveal themselves in emotionally resonant songs — too bad their ambitious effort was spoiled by a technicality.
With Andy Kaps replacing Hursey, Angst and Mataré continued working in the same vein on Cry for Happy, a fine-sounding (except for the drums) record that encompasses semi-acoustic countryish pop, nervous rock funk, boogie, desolate electric blues (“Motherless Child”) and straight Angst-rock with pretty harmonies. With lyrics of loneliness and joy that are as emotionally ambivalent as the album title, Cry for Happy brings Angst out into the open as never before.