Even in the midst of a pandemic, DIY bands haven’t lost faith in their tried-and-true reliance on word-of-mouth spread and grassroots persistence. Internet indie artists-of-the-moment pop up every day, but rather than chase the off-chance at shallow virality in the TikTok era, Philly four-piece MECHANICAL CANINE is staying focused on authenticity and vulnerability while doing what they know best — writing exciting, honest songs and doing it all themselves.
The band formed by chance in late 2017 when James Walsh and Jon Herroon were matched as last-minute roommates at Drexel University, which they both chose to attend for the school’s well-regarded music program. With Walsh a habitual songwriter and Herroon a student of punk rock and the DIY ethos of guys like Jeff Rosenstock and Ian MacKaye, the fluke pairing led naturally into forming a band and fulfilling their dorm-room destiny.
Fast-forward to 2020, and MECHANICAL CANINE (with the additions of Eric Kholenstein on guitar and Alec Martin on drums) is on the heels of their debut LP, Good Photography, which was self-recorded and came out in pre-COVID 2020 on Herroon’s label Fire Hazard Records. But the record’s release, of course, was blunted by the pandemic, and it never quite got the rollout the band had hoped for (months of tour planning went down the drain, for instance). As it stands, though, Good Photography is one of the decade’s first comprehensive musical accounts of a twenty-something searching for the answers typical of growing up, but from the perspective of a raised-in-suburbia Gen-Zer.
In 36 minutes, Good Photography grips you and doesn’t let go while Walsh shows you his mind’s inner workings. You follow along as this college-aged kid sorts out milieu that may be most interesting to people in his age range. But it’s universally relatable, and the anxieties are very real. Is unlimited empathy possible? Can divided generations come to agreements? Does any of what I think even matter in the grand scheme? It’s coming-of-age questioning that forms the album’s story arc — from humanistic hopefulness, to depleted nihilism, to eventually coming to terms with the confusion of it all.
Because of their DIY ties, MECHANICAL CANINE has gotten and will inevitably get lumped into the “indie-punk” bucket, but it doesn’t quite do their sound justice. Good Photography places more value on creating an auditory experience in 12 songs than on trying to write the next emo-punk banger with a title like “shlonkey kong” or “Doctor Whomst” (actual titles of recent emo hits). And that’s to the benefit of the songs. There’s plenty of playfulness on the record — obscure “Simpsons” references and inside jokes are scattered throughout. But for each gag between songs, Walsh raises countless other answerless philosophical questions as contrasts; “Is there right or wrong however you perceive it?”
Outside of the DIY punk vacuum, the LP is quite literally an art-rock trip through Walsh’s inner dialogues that touches sonically on shoegaze, folk-punk, emo and post-rock, sometimes all in the same song. It's a weird combination, but it works because of some crafty sequencing transitions and because of Walsh’s overwhelming sincerity pulling it all together.
While this band’s full self-actualization may still be a few years down the road, there’s a lot to like about the path they’re taking — putting the music first, writing from the heart, pushing themselves creatively. But frustrations with life’s questions don’t end when you hit that first post-adolescent reality check. Good Photography leaves you wondering what MECHANICAL CANINE and Walsh will come up with next time he writes his frustrations down.
By Monty Colfax
MECHANICAL CANINE IS:
James Walsh - Vocals / Guitar
Jon Herroon - Bass
Jake Hoffpauir - Guitar
Alec Martin - Drums
Mechanical Canine + Precious Little Life - Split EP4/29/22
Flammable Music For Flammable People: Vol. 109/04/20
Mechanical Canine - Good Photography02/28/20