If you were to ask Thunderhawk singer/songwriter Josh Hall about Powerlifting, the debut record under his Killer Robots From Space moniker, he’d probably tell you that he recorded it by accident. On his lunch hour at work. Hanging upside down in the garage while the car was running. Half drunk. Suffering from pink eye. You get it. Having already released a number of records in 2009, Hall, for some reason, seems less than thrilled about this little gem of a lo-fi pop album. He seems so unconcerned, even, that he’s decided that he likely won’t give it a proper release. Instead, he’s just been sending MP3 files to anyone who asks. “Send it to your friends. I don’t care,” he says. Tell him you love it and he’ll laugh at you, maybe even hang up on you or block your texts. That’s just how this dude rolls.
But the more familiar you are with Hall and his grand struggles to be heard, the more this makes sense. Powerlifting is an amazing album, almost too good to believe. It sounds both tossed-off and precise, the true sign of lo-fi mastery. It sounds like a collection of demos from a late 90s pre-Interpol Matador Records band who never got around to polishing off their classic. It sounds, dare I say it, like the only album Hall has ever made that those lame brains over at Pitchforkmedia.com might like. This is not because Hall set out to make some sort of weirdo Deerhoof-inspired madness, but because Powerlifting is his most cohesive, varied set of tunes yet. More than anything else he’s yet released, these 13 songs feel like a record, and that makes for universally approachable listening. The vocals, guitars, production, themes are uniformly consistent.
More importantly, there’s not a bad song to be found. Not even a mediocre song. Opener “Killer Robots From Space” is a new classic, bridging the gap between The Who and Zumpano, but with a minimalist approach. Here Hall doesn’t often sound too much like the guy from Thunderhawk or even Black Label Summer. He’s someone else. Gone is the drunken/stoned Hawk and the twangy Black Label lover. Here Hall is a heavy-lifting power-popper with a sense of humor and radio vocals. He’s even dropped the dirty mouth he’s become known for. Only two songs break the three-minute mark; many don’t even make it to two. The Killer Robots get in and out quickly, sometimes playing weird ballads, but mostly tearing through some of the most mild power-pop you’ll find. They sound almost like a garage version of the 1997 version of Teenage Fanclub, that is if Teenage Fanclub were American and self-produced. They sound like a band A.C. Newman would listen to in his tour van, probably going on and on about how he should go back to simple arrangements and big hooks.
“Wild Child (Power Ballad)” sounds nothing like anything else Hall has ever released. It’s mellow, entrancing, lyrical and quietly epic. One of the two guitar layers here sounds almost Thunderhawk-like while the other sounds more like The Jesus and Mary Chain. Every word feels like part of a hook. The 34-second “Sing For You” is absolutely perfect, somehow feeling like a full-length song before cleanly segueing into the familiar “Loraline,” which, like “Sing For You” and the amazing “Whirl” (sequenced later on the album), was also included on Hall’s Black Label Summer record, released earlier this year. Picking which version you like better – the twangy or the poppy – isn’t necessary, as the two treatments feel different enough to establish their own identities. Don’t fret the overlap.
“Halo Devils” and “Dead Still,” like “Wild Child,” are again very different for Hall. We’ve seen him rock with the Hawk and twang with the Labels, but we’ve not really seen him get overly arty. This is exactly what he does on these late-album cuts, and it works. It’s a lo-fi, minimalist version of arty pop-rock, similar in approach to Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight. Three or four listens in and everything begins to click.
Due to the diversity, consistency and cohesion offered on Powerlifting, I’m tempted to call this not only my favorite Josh Hall record yet, but maybe my favorite album of the year. It’s that good. One can only hope that someone will someday hear these songs on a fluke (because that’s pretty much the only way it’s going to be heard by, well, anyone) and either convince Hall to put it out properly or offer to put it out for him. Powerlifting could very easily be Hall’s crossover record, if only more than a couple of dozen folks could somehow get the opportunity to hear it. Every artist needs a fan favorite; I reckon this may just turn out to be Hall’s Pinkerton.