Favorite Track: "A Flower and a Weed" Least Favorite Track: "Easy As That"
Emo/Indie-Punk outfit Remo Drive broke onto the scene in 2017 with their critically acclaimed debut, Greatest Hits, which is still one of my favorite albums to date. The record is visceral and full of spunk, with colorful and fuzzy instrumentation and frontman Erik Paulson’s angry, introspective lyrics that are brutally blunt and to the point. This album seemed to do well among critics and indie fans alike, and Remo Drive became another band that many watched closely to see where they would go next. Two years later, we saw the release of their second studio album, Natural, Everyday Degradation. This record saw the implementation of a new drummer in the band, Sam Becht, who I think was the biggest highlight of the record. On Natural, Everyday Degradation, it was apparent that Remo Drive was looking for a new sound, trading in the fuzzy guitars and the emo-punk vocals for a more cleaned-up sound with more focus on storytelling. Unfortunately, this record did little for me, as I thought the majority of the ideas were incredibly dime-a-dozen, and they didn’t really find any ways to make this new, sanitized sound they were going for interesting. Jump ahead to June 26th, 2020, and Remo Drive has released their third studio album, Portrait of an Ugly Man. This record is a redemption, of sorts, from their last record which seemed to be a flop, commercially and in terms of critical acclaim. On Portrait of an Ugly Man, Remo Drive continues the more pop-oriented sound of Natural, Everyday Degradation, but they find plenty of ways to spice it up. The guitar tones are smooth and funky, Erik Paulson’s vocal delivery across this record has a very heavenly quality to it, and the drum and bass work from Sam Becht and Stephen Paulson respectively, is stellar.
This record seems to be a melding of the past two sounds the band has experimented with, which is very apparent on songs like “A Flower and a Weed” and “A Guide to Live By”, the former of which happens to be my favorite song on the record by far. The cleaner guitar tones and the more storytelling oriented lyrics are clearly inspired by Natural, Everyday Degradation, but there is still something distinctly Greatest Hits present as well. The lyrics are still introspective and self-deprecating at times, and there are also a few tracks where a more chunky and tough guitar tone is present. Despite the fact that Portrait of an Ugly Man feels like the best of both worlds, it still retains something of its own; a new maturity from the band that we haven’t previously seen. If Greatest Hits is a teenager filled with youthful anger and expressiveness, Portrait of an Ugly Man is that teenager all grown up, looking back at all the hatred and anger that he harbored more critically, and instead of blindly feeling that rage, he aims to examine the rage, and to understand why that rage was felt in the first place.
Not only is the sound of this record more mature and interesting, the songwriting from Paulson is much more introspective and interesting to dissect and listen to. The lyrics from Erik are much smarter and more compelling, especially on the track “The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive”, which seems to be a song about the fans of the band holding the sound of Greatest Hits hostage. There is also some great commentary on capitalist greed on the track “True Romance Lives”, with funny lines from Paulson like “If you want to make me crumble at your touch, you’ll have to dress up like an apple and take me to the Genius Bar.”, which I audibly laughed at the first time I heard it. This record shows everyone in the band maturing as songwriters, musically and lyrically.
I would be lying if I said the record didn’t have it’s issues, however. The song “Easy as That” is a compelling song lyrically, but I think the instrumental here is much more reminiscent of the lackluster instrumentals we saw on NED. There are also times on the record where the songs feel like they could be a bit shorter with the track “Ode To Joy 2” being the best example. This track was easily my least favorite single for the album, as the instrumental also felt pretty dime-a-dozen.
With that being said, I think Portrait of an Ugly Man is a very pleasant surprise from Remo Drive. They show plenty of growth and maturity, regardless of the constant demand from hardcore fans of Greatest Hits that they remain one-dimensional. The lyrics are more compelling and the instrumentals are well thought out. Despite the backlash this record seems to be getting as of now, I think Remo Drive has put out one of the most infectiously smart and fun records of the year so far.