As good as Stranger Ballet is—and it’s one of the most pleasurable guitar-rock albums of the year—it isn’t an ideal introduction to The Poison Control Center. That would be seeing the infectious Iowa band in a small bar somewhere out on the road. No album can beat witnessing guitarists Patrick Tape Fleming and Devin Frank play scattershot solos while doing the splits or standing on their heads, or the feeling of being swept up in mass sing-alongs that seem half-remembered from long-lost Pavement and Guided By Voices shows. In a live setting, The Poison Control Center revives all those dormant clichés about the transformative power of sweaty, guileless, up-close-and-personal rock ’n’ roll. Stranger Ballet doesn’t scale those heights, but even on record, The Poison Control Center demand that all wallflowers get up off their asses and live in the moment.
Recorded during a quick break amid a marathon 13-month, 260-show tour in support of 2010’s sprawling Sad Sour Future, Stranger Ballet is noticeably punchier than its predecessor, and has more impact. While Future found PCC trying on a number of guises over the course of 17 songs—from spiky Superchunk-inspired rockers to moodier, synth-accented ballads—Stranger Ballet sounds built on and for the stage.
A wistful steel guitar greets “Born On Date” before it bounds into a heart-tugging road-trip narrative that namechecks Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun,” while the winning “Some Ordinary Vision” explodes out of the gate with glitter-rock swagger. The end-of-the-night penultimate track “Terminal” is a quick breather, but the rampaging closer “Reoccurring Kind” returns triumphantly to squalling riffs and Keith Moon drum fills. Like the rest of Stranger Ballet, it’s meant to bring the crowd to its feet. As bassist Joe Terry declares on the standout track “Underground Bed,” nothing is stopping these guys from having fun—and who would want to?