Apparently, someone once wrote that Brooklyn noise punk outfit Mr. Dream sounded like the “cassette you found in the used car you just bought,” and they took it as more of an aspirational message than a dig. Adam Moerder, Matt Morello, and Nick Sylvester started by scraping together noise and post-punk touchstones into their own scrap metal sculptures. 2011’s Trash Hit leaned heavily on the likes of Pixies and Jesus Lizard, while 2012’s Fatherland brought some dance-ready grooves reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand. So, yeah, a cassette left underneath a seat in a Ford Escort made sense from the start. But the fact that the trio released their new LP, Ultimate in Luxury, as an announcement of the band’s finale reinforces that used feeling. They’re now entirely stuck in an unreachable moment rather than just reaching back for one.
The album opens on the screech-rumble intro of “Making Muscles”, Moerder’s vocals cooly taunting, “You’re not sharp yet, you’re round” as the guitars sting away. But there’s something of futility, too, when he repeats the line “making muscles in the mirror again.” The band is clearly conscious of every moment of showing strength, even when it comes off unhinged. “Fringy Slider” immediately follows, the bonking bass and cymbal shimmy coming together in a laser-guided head nodder.
The Pixies echoes recur on the propulsive “Cheap Heat”, a highlight of the album and of the band’s career. While Moerder frequently falls into a nearly monotone post-punk smirk, here he shows a greater range, low melodic moans in the bridge, falsetto in the hook, shouts as the song burns its last fuel. After cataloging futile gestures (there’s talk about cardboard flags and being silenced by hands shoved in mouths), Moerder offers a solution: “I’ll gnash teeth and I’ll get mad for you,” he shrugs, after the “Alec Eiffel” guitars have slithered their way into the tune. That sort of catharsis is the key to what Mr. Dream and their influences bring to the table; even if he’s being sarcastic on “Cheap Heat” — which, judging from the title, is certainly a possibility — the headlong rush into the mosh pit the song demands is a precious commodity. It’s just too bad that they won’t be around to play this one live to see it happen.
After a strong start, the album starts to lose steam, especially in terms of that cathartic rush. The palm-muted scraping of “Work Faster” offers interesting texture, and Moerder swoons around like a drugged David Byrne, but the track never latches on. Later, “Watched It Wrong” arches expertly, but its insistence that “they’d rather see sex scenes” and “they’d rather see houses” ring kind of hollow, a vague accusation lobbed at a vague target. When the lyrics don’t have the same aggressive bite, Morello and Sylvester’s rhythms need more force, or else the whole thing gnaws gently. Luckily, the first half of Ultimate in Luxury tears in with enough force that its flagging second half can get away with a nibble.
Though it wouldn’t appear that Mr. Dream started out with the idea that this release would be posthumous, “Bloodmobile” works as a swan song. “Anyone can drive the bloodmobile/ It’s so easy, just grab the wheel,” Moerder intones over mournful guitar, adding lines about strange facial constructions (“no mouth, just tongue”), patricide, and empty status symbols, all as chilly mutilation waves and spectral, falsetto backing harmonies coast by. Maybe they found a Surfer Rosa tape stuck in the bloodmobile before they picked it up, and now they’re leaving Ultimate in Luxury in there for the next set of kids to listen through. In that way, the left-behind Ultimate in Luxury, soon to be available on cassette, is the perfect cap to the trio’s run.
Essential Tracks: “Making Muscles”, “Cheap Heat”