Rock-and-roll die-hards have a predilection for thinking the best days of the genre are well behind them. Considering that music that proudly casts guitars to the wayside has dominated the zeitgeist for the past decade, folks who are wistful for the days when "indie pop" was a clearly defined sound rather than a nebulous sensibility aren't wrong to wonder what's left for them.
Some of the most promising acts in the genre have figured out that invoking the spirit of college rock—or whatever else jangly guitar pop was referred to before "indie" became a qualifier for anything and everything—is a direct path to the pleasure center of guitar rock's true believers. Portland's Hugs are definitely one of those bands. The nine songs on their latest record, Love You to Death, could potentially come across as pandering to that reality, but the album's songwriting and assembly is far too honest and carefree to deserve such a cynical assessment. If Love You to Death's confident blend of post-punk, power pop and sugar-coated harmonies doesn't get your toe tapping in its breezy 30-minute runtime, consider yourself a killjoy.
The album kicks off with "Mile High Lady," a jaunty pacesetter that sounds like the Knack covering Haim. On the title track, frontman Danny Delegato sings he's "doing fine, out of place and out of time," which lands as a hopeful rumination rather than an outright bummer. It's a perfect statement of purpose for the record as a whole and for the crisp production of Sonny DiPerri, who lends a feeling of timeless melancholy to the entire affair.
As Love You to Death enters its dour midsection, it becomes clear the Hugs' strongest suit is their ability to pace themselves. The '90s alt-rock radio anthem "Can't Behave" recalls the brief window of time when Oasis, Blur and pre-OK Computer Radiohead jockeyed for airwave dominance. But the trio shows restraint by dialing back the feedback and aggression for the jittery balladry of "Who Loved You" that follows.
The next track, the bleary sing-along "Falling Star," finds Delegato repeating a line about how the time at hand is the best days of his life over chords that are as uncertain as the tremble in his voice. The decision to use such a hauntingly beautiful arrangement rather than a distortion-soaked banger as the record's emotional centerpiece shows a great deal of intelligence. While truly original ideas are scant on Love You to Death, the Hugs are masters of synthesis who know how to push all the right buttons at all the right times. When your songwriting and production are as airtight as they are here, reinventing the wheel takes a backseat to squeezing as much excitement as possible out of a formula that's been tried and true for decades.
SEE IT: The Hugs play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., dougfirlounge.com, with the Lavender Flu and Kulululu, on Friday, April 5. 9 pm. $10-$12. 21+.