When Drop Nineteens disbanded in the mid-‘90s, singer Greg Ackell decided he would never make music again. He wouldn’t noodle around on a guitar in his basement. He wouldn’t get a group of friends together just to jam. He was done with music entirely. Following the release of the shoegaze masterpiece Delaware in 1992, and the intricate experimentations on National Coma in 1993, the group disbanded. They shared stages with Radiohead, Hole, Blur, PJ Harvey and Smashing Pumpkins. They went from being teenagers in Boston to mid-twenty-somethings with a few MTV videos, a couple BBC sessions and numerous festival appearances under their belt. So when Drop Nineteens ceased to be, Ackell felt content. He had the rest of his life in front of him to figure out what he wanted to do. Music was a closed chapter.
That was until 2021, when a friend from the band’s early days got Greg on the phone to suggest making some music together, just to see how it felt. Instead of shutting it down like he had been doing over the years, he decided to entertain the prospect. For the first time in nearly 30 years, he picked up a guitar with intent. He immediately called up Steve Zimmerman, the band’s bassist and fellow guitarist, and the two got writing. It felt effortless for Ackell, like he never stopped writing music. “We were off to the races,” he says, “But also the question came up: what does a Drop Nineteens song sound like today?” Enter Hard Light, the band’s stunning third record. It’s the band’s proverbial follow up to Delaware, a modern Drop Nineteens record that is completely singular in its sound and vision.
The first task making Hard Light was, of course, getting the rest of the band back together. Drop Nineteens is an inherently collaborative project. Ackell writes the lyrics, and he works with band members Steve Zimmerman, Paula Kelley, Motohiro Yasue, and Peter Koeplin to create the sonic world. The record came together over the course of a year, recording at a patchwork of studios all around the country: Boston, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles. When Kelley and Ackell first heard their vocals recorded together on the opus album closer “T”, the chemistry was undeniable. Making music together felt natural, fluid, exciting.
Hard Light is a romantic record in the literary sense. Beauty from longing; longing from beauty. You put the album on and want to be clad in a velvet dress sprawled across a fainting couch. You want to be holding someone’s hand while you sit back in the tall grass. The guitars are expansive and expressive as ever. Ackell and Kelley’s vocals are cool, crystalline, and luminous. “Gal” comes on like a dream. The vocals pour in when you least expect them, once in the middle, where Ackell delivers one of the strangest (and best) lyrics on the record, “And there were snakes/with cats at the wheel.” Hard Light’s first single, “Scapa Flow” is triumphant and an excellent example of what a modern day Drop Nineteens song sounds like. The guitars glide cloud-like, floor toms shuffle and rumble in the background, searching. Ackell and Kelley’s vocals are as toned as they are bound. Hard Light is every bit the ride that Delaware was, diverse in its sounds, with surprises at every turn. Drop Nineteens have brought clarity and cool in 2023 to the genre they helped create. A portrait of a band 30 years later, as talented and dedicated to their craft as ever. To put it more bluntly, they’re at the top of their game.
1. Scapa Flow
“Scapa Flow,” is triumphant. An excellent example of what a modern day Drop Nineteens song sounds like. The guitars glide like clouds on a blue sky day, drums shuffle in the background, searching. Ackell and Kelley’s vocals are cool toned and dreamy, bound up in a haze of reverb. It’s unquestionably lovely.
Above all else, “Tarantula,” is a love song, the beginning of a fairy tale. “When it started downtown,” Ackell sings in the song’s first moments, “I was showing off my boots at the Box.” Guitars are bright and sunny, Ackell’s vocals are reflective. The titular Tarantula, the girl in question, radiates everywhere in the sonics. It makes you want to wear your heart on your sleeve.
3. The Price Was High
Foregrounded in Kelley’s vocals, “The Price is High,” is one of the record’s most mysterious songs. Kelley sounds almost a little bit like Madonna here, her soprano is alluring, sugary, compressed. The atmospherics are heavy. The bass snarls. The drums drive the song into the unknown. It’s a little Spoon, but more than anything, it’s totally Drop Nineteens.
4. A Hitch
“A Hitch,” was the first song the band wrote when they got back together. It set the tone for the rest of the album, for what a new Drop Ninteens song could sound like. It’s full of shoegazey goodness and psychedelic lyrics, including a sly reference to the Beatles’ Doctor Robert in the first verse. Do with that what you will.