Alex Rice has something to sell you. It’s a couple of ideas, nothing you haven’t heard before, but just wait until you hear him talk about them. This was the primary appeal of Sports Team’s first album, Deep Down Happy, where Rice succeeded as a frontman who performed as if he was going to be pulled offstage, Looney Tunes-style, at any second. On most songs, his voice fluctuated between yelping and yelling, singing with authority about suburban malaise, hypocritical politicians, consumerism and more. Even when the lyrics weren’t the sharpest, Sports Team took Rice’s fascinating howling and paired it with some incredibly memorable choruses to give us one of 2020’s strongest debuts.
“The Game” kicks off Sports Team’s sophomore album Gulp! and picks up almost immediately where they left off. If you loved Deep Down Happy, you’ll feel immediately at home with the opening feedback and the wall of crunchy guitars that follows. As soon as Rice starts singing, he paints a striking image of an empty business park at night, an ideal setting to skewer faux-politeness and the way people ignore societal ills just because they’re comfortable with their lives. Between the picked bassline and the steady drum groove, it’s classic Sports Team, complete with lyrics both common and slightly biting. “Oh yeah, that’s the game / Life’s hard but I can’t complain,” sings Rice.
For the rest of its runtime, though, Gulp! never lives up to the promise of “The Game.” Its 10 songs rarely manage to take advantage of Rice’s vocal mannerisms or one of the most interesting rock bands currently working. The band moves at a gentle pace on this album, with guitarists Rob Knaggs and Henry Young playing unmovable, unremarkable licks. Even when the songs hit their peak, they are often undercut by the production, which doesn’t emphasize how much fun Knaggs and Young can have as guitarists. The regular inclusion of an acoustic guitar seems almost designed to slow the album’s foremost moments of momentum, especially on “The Drop” and “Unstuck.” Considering they’re one of the most primal live acts around right now, it’s strange to hear Sports Team get bogged down in the studio.
What’s most unfortunate about this record is that Sports Team often show flashes of their most distinctive, best qualities. “Dig!” spends much of its time on a numbing chorus and occasional guitar noodling, only to hint at a more exciting evolution when Rice shouts about going to the corner store and plastic bags. But “Dig!” retreats back to the status quo and then closes with a guns-blazing, guitar-freakout-chorus finale that doesn’t reach liftoff. Between the muted acoustics and silly background vocals, “The Drop” comes across the same way. There’s no stakes here, no anthemic qualities and then, suddenly, the song is over.
Much of Gulp!’s middle section is samey and repetitive: “Kool Aid” has the tightness of the band’s early EPs, but lacks the energy that could make it really fly, while “Unstuck” gets stuck in a mid-tempo groove with a guitar riff that’s both irritating and mechanical. There isn’t the explosive tension of “Lander,” which opened Deep Down Happy, nor the juvenile but distinct humor of “Going Soft.” It’s not a bad thing that Sports Team don’t want to revisit the same sounds on their sophomore album, but it’s frustrating that the most intriguing moments here are occasional pivots into bummer ballads and slower meditations. Gulp! sits between optimistic and pessimistic, stuck in a dreary no-man’s-land, never tapping into the anger of their debut, nor the calmest moments of clarity that Rice can illustrate at the band’s best.
The only experiment that fully succeeds on Gulp! is “Getting Better,” a defeatist ballad that has a nice shuffling groove to it. Between the chunky guitars and the descending chord progression of the pre-chorus, there’s a theatrical quality to the song, which Rice sounds truly game to try. Sure, the lyrics that focus on the hypocrisy of the Bible can be somewhat trite. ”The worms are singing love songs / And the birds are saying grace” is one of GULP!’s biggest head-scratching moments, but much of the song works on the wistful groove alone. Ultimately, “Getting Better” lands with more elegance than Gulp!’s typically Sports Team-esque tracks.
Things wrap up with the mellow slow-burn of “Light Industry,” a hazy closer that builds to a peak of a mild sing-along. Between the strummed acoustic guitars and flickering synth melodies, there’s a real melancholic shimmer to the song’s opening half. Rice, singing about “Bennie and the Jets and dreary weekend sex,” plays perfectly into the song’s hesitant mood. It’s the one moment on Gulp! where his audible exhaustion fits, a song that makes you wonder what the rest of the album would have be like if only the band could translate Rice’s weariness into something more suited to their strengths. Instead, Sports Team take a swing with Gulp! and barely make contact.
Ethan Beck is a writer from Pittsburgh who is currently living in Manhattan. His work can be found at Bandcamp, No Ripcord, and others.
Revisit Sports Team’s 2019 Paste Studio session below.