First Impressions: Bad Machine by Boon

A plunking piano, swirling instruments and near-wordless harmonies slowly congeal into a bouncy groove at the beginning of Bad Machine, the fourth outing from the Philadelphia band known as Boon, with said groove conjuring the sweet cacophony of pop music past and present. Echoes of the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren and XTC, among others, reverberate throughout the eight tracks, with lead singer/frontman (and, like the rest of the band, multi-instrumentalist) Brendan Principato’s vocals leaning into the high-lonesome sound one moment before swooping lower the next. It’s a compelling listen.

Although recorded during the pandemic, most of the songs date to the band’s 2018 tour, but they embraced spontaneity when the time came to lay them down, working fast and trusting one another to find the heart of the songs. In addition to Principato, the band includes Dan Lynch, Jesse Paller, Andy Senken and Drew Sher; and the recording took place at various locales in Philly, as well as Artifact Audio in Maspeth, New York, a New Jersey motorcycle shop, and a small river shack near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Thematically speaking, the songs are not—album title aside—about Cylons, Cyborgs or even Windows Me-powered computers, but this thing we call life. The opening track, “Pictures of Mom,” for instance, builds on a simple conceit: “Saw a picture of my mother when she was a little girl/sitting on a picnic table, holding hands with her brother…” but pushes forward to the present and looks inward: “Now I ask myself the same thing every morning when I wake/Can I keep my feelings off the shelf and in my own two hands?”

“Talking To,” no doubt inspired by a pet, is one part admonishment, one part putting off said admonishment—much like me chiding Tyler the Cat, in other words. “Figure It Out” is a richly arranged track that sounds like a long-lost Pet Sounds outtake, just about, and delves into how we often spend too much time analyzing the whys and wherefores of a given situation, as well as life itself, instead of accepting it for what it is and moving on. 

If “Figure It Out” conjures the Beach Boys, “Candle” is sheer XTC, with whimsical lyrics about an oven-dwelling spider set to a bouncy melody. The drum-machine open of “Gallop,” for me, recalls the start of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” but it immediately takes a left turn and lands in Depeche Mode territory. It’s a moody affair about putting up and tearing down walls, in other words, about not wanting to be too close or near other people. The surreal lyrics of “A Shape, a Shell” dig into self-doubt and turning stones into gold; Beach Boys-like harmonies accent much of it. “The Light” is yet another Pet Sounds-esque track that—no doubt due to my life experiences—I hear as directed to a loved one slipping into dementia, though others may simply hear it as about when the light of love fades from the eyes of their significant other. “Barky” closes the album on a good note and should be identifiable to anyone who’s embarked on a road trip longer than a few hours.

All in all, Bad Machine is a decidedly good album that grows stronger with repeated listens. I recommend it.

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