Sure, We Are Scientists want you to dance, albeit in a school-function kind of way (the band often covers “Be My Baby” live); they also share the adolescent fixations/frustrations of ’90s punk. But it’s more accurate to say they’re the kingpins of the likably square subgenre launched by Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video that never actually existed. Not emo, exactly—something more respectful toward women, even if it puts women on the same pedestal. Robert Christgau once termed Thunderbirds Are Now! makers of “high-anxiety pop,” and you could call it that: WAS singer Keith Murray (the pretty one) always sounds like he’s on the edge of total endocrinal implosion, a fun trait when his band was a power trio filtering disco through fuzz-laced garage.
But on their second album, the band’s lost a crucial piece of the puzzle: Slyly winking drummer Michael Tapper (prettier) helped the boys craft a likable image via videos milking jokes from homoeroticism that avoided being annoying and frat-friendly in a you’re-so-gay-you-like-Coldplay way. Simple as the formula was, WAS were the rare radio-eyed current band to offer three distinct personalities. But now Tapper’s gone, and the band’s sense of humor has gone with him: Whereas 2006’s playfully angst-ridden With Love and Squalor had a humane composure (“Instead of throwing up your hands/Why don’t you tell me what you’re trying to tell me”), the new Brain Thrust Mastery finds Murray obsessed with being “the problem here.” The music is even more defensive about the rut they’re stuck in, and fires back in every style the now-duo can think of, from actual disco to Jimmy Eat World; the slower tunes are longer on texture than hooks. Which is no problem, but man, the hints of what could’ve been: The gorgeous “After Hours” deserves to be the “Closing Time” of the ‘aughts, and “Impatience” easily bests R.E.M.’s recent retro moves. Not a dreadful record, but they hereby forfeit their membership in the high-anxiety club, with nowhere to go but emo.