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Diva Sweetly - In the Living Room Music Album Reviews

Crisp and shiny as a compact disc, these 10 songs position the North Carolina upstarts as late-1990s alt-connoisseurs, unashamed of and unapologetic about their enthusiasms.

The first thing you need to know about North Carolina’s Diva Sweetly is that they are a byproduct of the Fest, the annual weekend in Gainesville, Fla., where the most exuberant, communal, and wildly uncool forms of punk rock congregate. Some bands are looking to smash the patriarchy, others to smash a bunch of PBRs, and some to do both. Diva Sweetly are pretty much the Fest made flesh: Call Diva Sweetly pop-punk, emo, or merely note the dashes of ska or nu metal, and they’d be honored. Daniel Gorham’s snare is one of the tightest you’ll hear this side of a 311 record, and Nick “Scoops” Dardaris’ production is astoundingly hi-fi for a new band on an upstart label, crisp and shiny as a compact disc.

Diva Sweetly draw a thick border around their most formative and least fashionable influences; in doing so, they have managed to emerge as the rare rock act that sounds truly young. Their debut LP, In the Living Room, honors the track-stuffing alt-rock of the late 1990s, with instrumental flourishes that burst out like comic thought bubbles. “Cult” betrays the band’s Southern roots by throwing in a banjo non sequitur; the chorus of “Wax on My Candles” balloons into Broadway spectacle and gets a campfire reprise. Diva Sweetly also rig their lyrics with joy buzzers. “Wax on My Candles” contains what must be the first documented usage of “egg sando” in a song, and a screen door is broke “just like me after I dropped a grand” by going on tour. “We were sniffing glue from ’92,” Gorham howls during “Floor Caved In,” his anachronisms linked by rhyme. Friends dose their drinks to “postpone the millennium,” while they flip the melody of “Auld Lang Syne” to namedrop Third Eye Blind.

Diva Sweetly are late-’90s alt-connoisseurs born a decade too late, on trend for 2019. Their vocal dynamic should be familiar: Karly Hartzman is the one with the actual chops, sifting spun sugar over the loping groove of “Detox Island” and adding crystallized tartness to “Cult.” Gorham supplies the energy; when he steps away from the New Rock Revolution vocal filters, he strains and yelps, keeping In the Living Room close to its DIY roots.

They’re a unified, if not wholly confident, front against the ills that define modern indie punk songwriting: anxiety about dropping out of college, anxiety about cults, anxiety about weed. “You’re calling this your life/But it’s seeming like a slow suicide,” Hartzman sings on “Education,” which would be the most profoundly despairing song heard in an Urban Outfitters if shoppers ignored the lyrics. In the Living Room can breeze by like that. Its sweetness isn’t cloying, even though Diva Sweetly do slather an even glaze over the second half. That prevents it from ever becoming bigger than the sum of its parts—10 songs of ingratiating, hooky, state-of-the-art, communal indie rock.

The other thing you need to know about In the Living Room: It includes a skit—not a spoken-word reading, not a voicemail, not a field recording, or anything else that typically accounts for an interlude in indie rock. This is an actually scripted skit, putting In the Living Room within a small but surprisingly elite class that includes There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and Fevers and Mirrors. Diva Sweetly offer a fake infomercial for the “Tongue Knife,” a concept introduced in “Education,” like a “Bigmouth Strikes Again” for kids who discovered the Smiths and ska in middle school. It’s all done in an intentionally grating tone that no one really uses anymore in a format that went the way of public-access television. I started fast-forwarding after the second listen, but this record wouldn’t really exist without it. No throwaway gag, it is the spiritual core of the rare indie rock album willing to go to any lengths to be the life of the party before everyone’s crying in their beers.

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