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Weakened Friends - Common Blah Music Album Reviews

For these alt-rock throwbacks about the causes and effects of bad relationships, it’s the unapologetic singing of Sonia Sturino that’s the secret weapon.

If you live long enough, you will eventually hear the same stories—or repeat them yourself. What changes is, hopefully, how they’re told. Portland, Maine’s Weakened Friends embrace that axiom as it relates to vintage indie rock on their full-length debut, Common Blah. Singer and guitarist Sonia Sturino, bassist Annie Hoffman, and drummer Cam Jones pick apart the causes and effects of bad relationships over familiar strains of alt-rock and grunge. In only three years, though, Weakened Friends have found their literal voice and emblem of musical interest: Sturino’s multifarious, melodramatic singing. Amid a trend of 1990s revivalism led by singing men, Sturino gives Weakened Friends the welcome feeling of letting loose that, in turn, makes Common Blah seem audacious despite abiding by alt-rock’s usual themes.

Given the glut of ’90s-obsessed acts that Boston breeds, it makes sense that Weakened Friends consider it their second home—a feeling apparently reciprocated by the city, which awarded them a Boston Music Award last year. Whereas local contemporaries like Pile echo Drive Like Jehu or now-defunct weirdos Krill emulated Pixies, Weakened Friends opt for the punchy eccentricity and pop hooks of Veruca Salt. During “Aches,” depth charges of grunge distortion get a bounce in their step from Sturino’s wiry guitar bends. The blown-out volume of “Peel” is balanced and sweetened by Hoffman’s downplayed vocal harmonies. And Jones steers the pulsing “Younger” with a frenzy of pounded cymbals and insistent snares, switching his emphasis in the chorus to highlight the song’s hook. Even when J Mascis appears on “Hate Mail” for a long-winded guitar solo and to draw Weakened Friends closer to the era they’re honoring, he doesn’t steal the thunder. The song’s core melody is too catchy for second place.

For Sturino, each song serves as a reminder of the dark period that prefaced the band’s formation: the overwhelming weight of perceived inadequacies, the perils of losing someone to addiction, or the belief that she had to endure toxic relationships for the sake of steadying her life. She sings about all of it in exaggerated leaps, ending notes with a guttural trill or pushing out words with a squeaky whine. At times, maybe it’s too much, even cloying, as when she seems to mock the breathy affectations of pop stars during “Blue Again.” But her yell soon transforms into a raw scream, a pure emotion. Turns out, this isn’t overcompensation. Sturino’s dramatic delivery comes from a need to feel the vibration of her voice exiting her body. Without that physicality, she says, she can’t enjoy singing in the first place. Her commitment feels bold and defiant, an introvert learning to be comfortable with some measure of external extravagance.

In the same way, the monotone mumbles of Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch are praised for being plaintive, Sturino’s rubbery inflection deserves recognition for its recklessness, the way it takes risks and leaps in communicating these feelings. By comparison, Common Blah’s most mild songs, like “Early” or the title track, tend to underwhelm when Sturino shies away from the style that transforms Weakened Friends’ pleasing throwbacks into dynamic, vital tunes. Hoffman and Jones are in total control of the rhythm section, but they’re not the reason to show up. When Sturino digs into her delivery, Common Blah shifts from an album of familiar alt-rock into a welcome reminder of how ’90s revivalism can actually sound rejuvenated and reaffirming.

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