Anyone who claims that most new music is terrible probably isn’t trying hard enough. The real challenge seems to be making sure one doesn’t miss any of it.
For example, take San Francisco’s Male Gaze. The band first caught my ear with their terrific 2015 EP, the cheekily titled Gale Maze. When news of Miss Taken showed up in my inbox, I was taken aback to find they’d released another album (King Leer) last year. While the band is still reminiscent of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, King Leer showed they’d honed their knack for subtle chord progressions, bringing bands like Husker Du and The Smiths to mind.
Still, despite their influences, Male Gaze has developed a distinctive sound all their own: chiming guitars, heavy drums and idiosyncratic but memorable hooks that grab your ears and hang on for dear life. “Pop is not a four-letter word,” insisted vocalist and guitarist Matt Jones in a 2015 interview, a sentiment that suggests he’s not worried about selling out.
The title Miss Taken is evidence that Male Gaze is still slinging puns with reckless abandon. It’s also proof that Jones now feels confident enough about the quality of both his singing and lyrics to ditch a lot of the heavily reverbed vocals found on Gale Maze. Jones has admitted that King Leer was a breakup album, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that these new tunes detail the whirlwind of emotions that accompany new relationships.
The album, despite its jagged melodies, is incredibly romantic; unrequited love is likened to both jumping out of a plane (“Tell Me How It Is”) and the plane itself crashing (“Miss Taken”). A couplet like “It’s exciting, sharing our limbs” from “All Yours” recalls Plato’s Symposium, while “it’s no big deal / I’m just in love with you” (from “Tell Me How It Is”) is the kind of clever yet candid confession many songwriters struggle to master. What’s intriguing is how many of these sentiments could easily be sung from either a male or female point of view. They’d also fit quite comfortably into the confines of a pop song.
For a band who calls themselves Male Gaze, it’s refreshing to hear lyrics that are the furthest thing from macho. “And sometimes I’d make you lunch.” Jones sings in “If U Were My Girl,” a line that amusingly rotates the sexist cliché of ordering women to make sandwiches. “I ain’t one for clipping wings / You could be just who you wanna be,” he continues, before switching to the simple but rueful chorus of “But you ain’t, so I won’t.”
The self-deprecating nature of “Pale Gaze” (mind the puns!) mixes sexual and racial politics with lines like “it’s just my white male showing” and “a pale gaze is guaranteed to let you down again” while steadfastly refusing to wallow in self-pity. “Pyramids” is the kind of song that could be interpreted as someone with a fetish for women of color (“I wanna see where those brown legs end”), but comes across as more personal than problematic.
Although there are thousands of bands vying for our attention at any given moment, fans of sincere post-punk-turned-pop should look for Male Gaze. Theirs is a bold and brainy sound that will have listeners tapping their feet while they’re marveling at the lyrics.
Miss Taken was released on June 30 from Castle Face Records.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.