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Album Review: Formal Age makes solid alt-rock debut

“1923-2319” by The Formal Age

Ah, good ol’ alternative rock. No matter the decade, there’s going to be jittery nerds writing punky, new-wavey songs and performing them as if it’s their last will and testament.

The Formal Age is releasing their first album this week, and it might remind Gen-X Duluthians of a time in the local music scene during which Puddle Wonderful were exalted gods of whatever coffee shop they set up in, and when the Recyclabell was like a secret club where the password was your own youthful exuberance.

Let’s not get misty. These guys aren’t some throwback to 1994 or something, but they do have that eternal, timeless college-radio sound, and it’s good to hear the torch being lifted when it gets lifted.

From the first chords of the Devo-like keyboards, the entrance of a Built to Spill guitar line, the shaky Bright Eyes vocals, and the emo-esque, double-time, gang-vocal chorus, it’s clear the kind of territory we’re in. “We’re in a company town / where the company died,” goes the hook. The song structure is solid, and the arrangement is effective, with the band rising and falling in intensity.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh / workin’ overtime,” goes the chorus on “Economic Climate Change,” before a burbling keyboard comes spilling over the music. That’s something this band does well — add keys to the typical guitar/bass/drums setup. Phil McGrath does a nice job coloring in the sonics here and there with smears of sound from his keyboards. Sometimes, he’s not there, and then, here’s a bridge with a nice, subtle Roddy Bottom lining, or a Weezer’s-blue-album synth line there.

“Medicine” is a kicker of a track, perhaps the album’s best. It’s got some early Arcade Fire energy, and maybe some shades of Lou Barlow’s Dinosaur Jr. tunes. “And she’s screaming somewhere / and it’s freezing out there,” goes the chorus “they try to break her with medicine.” It could be a song about someone going off their prescription and going missing. If it’s not, it feels like it could be, anyway.

(Speaking of Lou Barlow, “Saint Louis Bay” is even more reminiscent of his work. Jacob Jonker’s vocal cadence on this one is totally Sebadoh.)

There’s a good amount here that the band gets right, but they’ve got room for improvement. The vocals occasionally have some pitchiness to them. Here and there, the recording reveals guitars that are out of tune, or keyboard lines that are out of time. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, and it’s probably more a product of a hurried recording than anything, but the band would improve greatly as a recording concern with a bit more focus on some of the micro details. Some of the mix also has a straight-up, demo-ish quality here and there, and the band would probably benefit a lot from some crazy production choices, with sounds flying around and such.

In all, it’s a solid collection of tunes from a group that evokes a multitude of American alt-rock bands without specifically sounding like any of them.

The Formal AgeAlbum: “1923-2319”

Recorded by: Rich Mattson at Sparta Sound

Mastered by: Jake Larson

Website: theformalage.

Personnel: Adam Helbach (drums), Jacob Jonker (lead guitar), Phil McGrath (keyboards), Jason Rahman (bass), Ryan Wiisanen (guitar)

Upcoming show: 10 p.m. Friday at Redstar Lounge with Wino, WI and Turbo Rathvon, 600 E. Superior St.

Tickets: Free

Listen to "Medicine" by clicking here.