Lame-O Records wasn’t supposed to exist in its current form. Don’t believe me? Ask Twitter. It originally was just a launchpad for Modern Baseball’s breakthrough debut full-length Sports, which thus caused the Philadelphia label to reassess its priorities. A string of Philly-centric indie-punk releases later, Lame-O Records soon revealed a new brand identity, themselves assuming this refocus by signing their first non-U.S. act, Johnny Foreigner. This U.K. export doesn’t really conform to the label’s back catalog, sloshing around in different pools in order to dirty up divisions between sounds. And despite the thematic elements present on Sports and the dreary days in the life captured on Three Man Cannon’s Pretty Many People, You Can Do Better (originally released via the U.K.’s Alcopop! Records) seems to string together a series of vignettes from a fictional city. That’s not something you hear every day.
You Can Do Better is, however, built up of fun and familiar forms you hear every day in this corner of the scene. “Shipping” drops flanger with the same bombast as another opening track — blink-182’s “Feeling This” — and delivers a sugar rush in the ensuing three minutes that energizes with the same brute force as Weatherbox-grade emo or left-of-center pop-punk. “Riff Glitchard” borrows from the oft-abused twinkly notch in the “emo revival” tool belt in its guitars and meandering drums, and tinkers with math-rock elements not far from fellow Brits TTNG. Despite use of these worn roads, it’s how Johnny Foreigner barrels down them that saves them from being what the dual-vocal attack on standout track “Le Sigh” calls “a copy of a copy.”
This fresh approach ultimately stems from the male/female vocal dichotomy which invades the record’s 11 tracks. Both vocalists share a similar range, so when one shrieks and brandishes a sharp yelp, the other spits out a calmer storm. This seesaw of reserve and raucousness serves the music well. “In Capitals” rushes away from its mid-tempo starting line with a full-on instrumental attack punctuated by booms of drum machine thunder. The track’s weather can already be tough to bear for some, so the forecast proves less threatening when considering the vocals that trade off in intensity.
Let’s return to the fact Johnny Foreigner constructed an entire world around this album, and in doing so, center our attention around “Wifi Beach.” Does this paradise dance around digital sands? It does, with gritty synth melodies sliding between string bends and loud percussion. Does this track signal feelings of escapism? Absolutely, as lyrics screech that our traveling narrator is “taking us back” as a pummeling background jars our return to the band’s fictive destination.
Not every entry in the running time fleshes out as a complete chapter in the Johnny Foreigner Imaginary Location Storybook, with “Stop Talking About Ghosts” borrowing more from the band’s aesthetic layers (their logo is what appears to be a dead ghost) and smirking self-reflection (distant Pac-Man noises can be heard oscillating between channels) than grander authorship. “To the Death” serves as a less-adventurous prelude to Better‘s closer “Devastator,” although both tracks’ mathy emo-rock codes could have zipped up nicely into one cozy, organized whole.
Regarding “Devastator,” following its concluding wall of sound is a glitchy rendering of what sounds like a locked groove which undulates for three minutes or so. However, when this monotony ends, so begins “To the Deaf” — whether this is poking fun at confused listeners or the similarly-titled “To the Death” remains to be seen. This track showcases a different side to Johnny Foreigner, with the track boasting more clean acoustic tones and lo-fi production values than the rest of the record’s proud, amped-up mentality. The album’s coda is boosted by a bright chorus of pop horns, which ends the action on a high note. It’d be hard to do better than that.
It’d be impossible to review You Can Do Better‘s sound quality without acknowledging the quixotic three-minute pulse between “Devastator” and “To the Deaf.” Judging by the fact it’s definitely present, one can correctly assume the rest of the album’s less-diluted moments are made obvious. This is largely true, with the loudest moments on blistering cuts such as “In Capitals” and “Shipping” kept intact and the laconic softness on “Riff Glitchard” rendered clear. Even the digital-sounding features on “Wifi Beach” and “Stop Talking About Ghosts” aren’t pushed to the side. Surface noise does make itself known primarily at the beginning of sides, however.
Lame-O’s reissue retains the same outer jacket from the Alcopop! pressing (save for a swapped logo), and features a double-sided printed inner sleeve, a first for the label. One side features the album’s full lyrics tightly packed together as black text on a white background. This minimalist intent sharply contrasts with the sleeve’s reverse, an artwork-laden credits page assaulted with messy handwriting and DIY construction. The record’s center labels share more in common with this playful display. This might be the last Lame-O vinyl release to sport the original logo, as well.
The first US pressing of You Can Do Better was limited to 500 copies, split between clear (limited to 100 copies) and red vinyl (pictured, limited to 400 copies). A digital download is included. Alcopop!’s pressing included things like a pre-order exclusive map of the record’s invented universe and a Johnny Foreigner wristband, but perhaps these goodies will make some sort of reprise if Lame-O releases any future efforts from the group.
As Lame-O’s first non-Philadelphian act, Johnny Foreigner has established themselves as a brash, expansive force to be reckoned with in the States. At times unabashedly punk-minded and others soaked in math-rock texture, this U.K. quartet has crafted a release as exciting as it is loud — an excavation of the band’s sizable discography is in order if You Can Do Better catches you pleasantly off guard after a few rotations.
“Le Sigh,” “Riff Glitchard,” “Wifi Beach,” and “To the Deaf”*
*As mentioned above, “To the Deaf” is a hidden track, and digital streaming services (and the back of the LP) do not feature it on the track listing.