by Niccolo Dante Porcello (@chromechompsky)
Radiator Hospital’s delightful and vital new album Play The Songs You Like, like many of the best records, functions as a companion for aging amidst the current malaise. Beyond being an exceptional rock album, Play The Songs You Like is a deeply sentimental look at what happens in any life, from a band that has always excelled on such a minutely grandiose level. Across three full band records (and several EPs) Radiator Hospital have carved out a reputation for being stalwart romantic punks, pairing exceptionally crafted jangly punk with Sam Cook-Parrot’s devastating lyrics. On “Cut Your Bangs”, from 2014’s Torch Song, Cook-Parrot sang “no, you say you’ll cut your bangs/ I’m calling your bluff/ when you lie to me it’s in the small stuff,” a deeply memorable gut-punch that still comes to mind daily. These glimpses into discomfiting emotions appear routinely throughout their discography like gospel for the perpetually ill at ease.
On Play The Songs You Like, Cook-Parrot and the rest of Radiator Hospital turn in an exceptional entry into the canon of records about getting older, while still resolutely casting universal experiences into a fresh light. This is the case from the get go: opener “Long Distance Dedication” kicks off the record with one of their best songs to date, and one in squarely in the vintage of Radiator Hospital bangers. Cook-Parrot and guitarist/singer Cynthia Schemmer harmonize the duration of the song: “The sign was faded blue and white/ the windows painted over/ the halls inside fill up with light/ if only in your head/ all your favorite bands were in the corner signing for you/ they knew your name and everything/ they knew that you were dead”. It’s a dream, sure, but its also the feeling of having been through so many cycles (relationship/album/seasonal/et. al), and having known a vast number of things that have come and gone and being jaded about always idolizing newness when there is familiarity to be found in bygone moments. This sentiment is echoed on “The Songs You Like,” “the songs you like/ will never sound as good to you as they did under the blood red summer moon/ yeah, the songs you like are getting older every day/ same trouble you find every time you wake”. The exhaustion Cook-Parrot illuminates is so familiar (to a lot of people I would guess), a feeling of exhaustion so true that the moments outside of that feeling are rare.
These are songs that sound and feel deeply compatible with the moment we’re in, one of such gaudily overblown everything, from the endless delivery of (online) takes at all hours of the day, to the raunchy disfunction of our politic, to the environmental chaos both present and looming (to name a few), that having energy and passion usually signifies a willful ignorance, at least in some part. Like most Radiator Hospital songs, “Nothing Nice”, has no chorus, but when Schemmer and Cook-Parrot harmonize on a repeated ending refrain of “I love to just give up/ Yeah yeah, I love to just give up” its suddenly a sing along. There are endless examples of moments like this — each of the 16 songs on Play The Songs You Like has a small moment, a boisterously dark refrain that lends itself to shouting. On the standout “The People At The Show”, Radiator Hospital swirl and crash around it comes when Cook-Parrot somehow delivers: “we learn the names and places/ we get fucked up in the same places/ but when the wave comes crashing down/ will you swim to me or watch me drown”. Its impossible to say why, but it comes off as strangely romantic.
Cook-Parrot, Schemmer, drummer Jeff Bolt, and bassist Jon Rybicki have never sounded better, thanks to the engineering assist of Jeff Ziegler (The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile, Mary Lattimore) — each tumble and screech are immaculately captured here, unlike on prior records where occasionally a wall of noise would blend together into a punk soup. It highlights the dynamics that have always been present when the band plays live, and its a huge boon for the records. Each song has its own fidelity, honing the sonic warmth that Radiator Hospital have always dealt in. Even on the wonderfully different “Also Ran”, where Cook-Parott layers synths in place of the band and vocals, for the most part, its nothing but Hospital-ian in its warmth. Musically, Play The Songs You Like is outstanding, with the band more full of life and riffs than ever before. Bolt and Rybicki are so fused throughout this record that sounds like Schemmer and Cook-Parrot are standing on a physical foundation — and it delivers the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of punk: catchy, loud, and fast.
Radiator Hospital have always done well taking the minutia of small moments and making it hold place for larger, and more trite, expressions of emotion. No one does a better job of writing love songs that feel unrecognizable. On Play The Songs You Like, the topic is expanded to include songs about understanding how weird everything we do, from romance, to social participation, to performance (in any sense of the word) is. As always, Cook-Parrot does this with seeming ease, and immense grace.