With its second album, Lenses Alien, Cymbals Eat Guitars challenges The Hold Steady’s stronghold on chronicling the debauched exploits of bored kids. But where Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn recalls Charles Bukowski in his unfussy tales of the characters he’s encountered, Cymbals frontman Joseph D’Agostino is more like a beat poet, peppering his stream-of-consciousness lyrics with references to urban legends (“It is initiation season, so watch out for cars with no lights on”), scrambling “to the dunes to puke under the pale moon,” getting “so high we’d pass out with our shoes on,” and friends gone too soon. (“I said ‘From the age of 6 this boy did not want to live,’” goes “Gary Condit.”)
Subject matter is all Cymbals Eat Guitars has in common with The Hold Steady, and the former casts a wider thematic and sonic net than the latter. Knotty and dense, Lenses Alien opens with an eight-and-a-half-minute song, “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name),” and the album’s swirling distortion and intense climaxes (like the end of “Keep Me Waiting”) make it an altogether different beast from The Hold Steady. The sound recalls ’90s indie rock, and like Cymbals Eat Guitars’ debut, Why There Are Mountains, Lenses Alien bears traces of Modest Mouse, Superchunk, Cap’n Jazz, Slint, and others, but the songs exude a craftsmanship that simple re-appropriation couldn’t achieve. The band may be trying too hard to emphasize that by opening the album with an epic track, but the point isn’t lost.