When an artist pulls off a Nirvana cover without sounding like Nirvana, pay attention. It’s a testament to the songwriting chops of the mind behind Bully. Started by Alicia Bognanno as a solo project in 2013, the past seven years and two LPs have landed Bully as one of Sup Pop’s most promising bands. Part indie rock, part punk rock and part dream-pop, Bully is a compelling balance of sweet melodies, gritty guitars and high energy, which has driven this band’s development. While SUGAREGG doesn’t veer off course, it’s thoughtful lyrics and heightened production make it Bully’s most fully realized effort.
Opening cut “Add It On” shows how much Bully benefits from the contributions of touring drummer Wesley Mitchell and bassist Zach Dawes. Powerful rhythm and spacious timbre kicks the album off strong, topped off by Bognanno’s bewitching melodies. “Every Tradition” finds her voice perfectly synthesized with her addictive guitar leads cutting through the thick distortion like the shoegaze elite. Underneath her mesmerizing, spirited performances lies a striking diatribe against sexist societal pressures: “It’s like pressure to have a baby/ When I don’t want one in my body.”
Bognanno’s rasp cuts through the thumping bass and glamorous, jangly guitars of “Where to Start,” providing a vulnerable appraisal of a toxic relationship while retaining relatability. Her storytelling is both introspective and universal, lending the residual heartbreak anthem “Prism” to both poetic musings emotional impact: “The sun hits a prism/ Your ghost in my kitchen.” The music has a similar effect, balancing raw energy and enveloping dreamscapes. Take the grungy bass melodies and echoing feedback of “Hours and Hours,” which Bognanno guides to glacial chords with melodic fervor. Bully brings atmosphere and grit together in a way that recalls the giants of ‘90s alt-rock without relying too hard on nostalgia.
From the chunky chugs that lay the foundation of “You” to the propulsive beats and electrifying leads of the appropriately titled “Stuck in Your Head,” Bully effectively transcends the usual confines of indie rock projects. Guitar, bass and drums develop with tasteful chemistry and dynamic layerings, allowing the music to appeal as more than a simple backdrop for Bognanno’s singing. Dawes’ bass lines maintain a vital role throughout the record. He dances over the fretboard on “Let You,” revealing the harmonic depth within the infectious riffing and shouted chorus. Mind you, the album would still be plenty engaging if it only had Bognanno’s guitar and voice going for it.
It’s not that hearing Bognanno basically pull of the vocal equivalent of the lead in My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep” isn’t more than enough for “Like Fire,” but that her emotional growth augments the songwriting. Her wordplay has more room to breathe on the downtempo ambient balladry of “Come Down,” on which she looks back on her struggles with bipolar disorder. There’s a certain peace underlying her palpable angst, embodying the healthier headspace she’s in now while processing past trauma, “Dig to find answers/ I could dig so low/ And I’m changing into a person I don’t know,” he sings.
SUGAREGG’s energy stems from Bognanno’s personal victories and societal orientation, encapsulated on “Not Ashamed.” The song’s explosive delivery and angelic harmonies embody her joy about being herself, as well her poised solidarity against those who would have her conform. Bully’s noisey pop sensibilities compare to the likes of Japandroids and Desaparecidos, with bite behind the hooks and growl behind the hazy chord progressions. To that effect, it doesn’t really matter that “What I Wanted” pushes buttons already covered by the likes of Sonic Youth, in that its self-actualized power prevents it from becoming derivative.
Bully is a great example of how a style of music becomes a part of the overarching songwriting lexicon, as a medium for self-expression that can transcend its “boom period” if it hits something deeper than the sum of its parts. That would explain why SUGAREGG has more to offer than throwback appeal, and why Bognanno and company have done so well for themselves.