Jeremy Underwood started mail-ordering music from Slumberland Records when he was 15 years old. He's 34 now, and his band, Gold-Bears, is about to release its second album, Dalliance, on the influential indie pop label. It's a dream come true for Underwood, who lives in Atlanta. But the story of how this dream came to be, however, is rather unromantic. "I sent Slumberland's Mike Schulman the first Gold-Bears single and he was like, 'Oh, this is good,'" Underwood says. "Then I sent him the second one and he was like, 'Oh, this is really good.' Then he said, 'You guys are like one of the best pop bands right now.'"
As Underwood recalls, the two started talking business, and the negotiations were tough: "This was literally my email: 'Hey, do you want to work together?' His reply: 'Yes.' Next email: 'LP?' His reply: 'Yes.' And that's how it came about."
It was a fitting start to a relationship that was meant to be. For 25 years, Slumberland has come to be known as one of the world's top purveyors of fuzzy, pretty indie pop music, where dreamlike melodies are built around cuddly post-punk guitars. That's also a solid description of what Gold-Bears — currently Underwood backed by local indie-rock band Small Reactions — does better than just about anyone right now.
The evidence is all over Dalliance, an exhilarating collection of tunes that explore thorny lyrical themes and the punkier side of indie pop. It was recorded at the East Atlanta studio the Cottage, not far from Underwood's home, and sonically, it's a significant step up from Gold-Bears' self-recorded debut, 2011's Are You Falling in Love? It's also less cryptic. "I think I had a better vision of what I wanted this album to be," Underwood says. "The first one's a little more veiled in terms of lyrical content, where this one is kind of ... not veiled anymore.
"On the first album, I was married at the time and it was not a very good relationship, and I was saying things that I shouldn't have been saying," he adds. "I was trying to guard them in a way. But this time I'm divorced and it's just kind of an angry record about the whole situation."
The sound matches the sentiment. On Dalliance, Gold-Bears' brand of pop is more serrated than smooth, more gritty than gentle. The rhythms are urgent and cymbals crash around like the grand finale of a fireworks display. Perfectly catchy songs such as "From Tallahassee to Gainesville" are smeared with shrieks of feedback. Underwood draws influence from the more caustic branch of pop-rock — the Thermals ("Chest," "Fathers and Daughters") and Superchunk ("Death With Drums," "Punk Song No. 15," "Her Fears"), for example — than pastoral faves like Teenage Fanclub. And if you could bottle the gorgeous jangle of "Hey, Sophie," you could probably label it "Slumberland Sound" and sell it to bands until the end of time.
Throughout it all runs a sharp sense of melody, something Underwood has had since his days in his old college indie-rock band in Florida, Plastic Mastery. It's also something he has soaked up over a lifetime of listening to great pop bands. "I've been listening to Superchunk since I was 13," he says. "Obviously it's going to be an influence on my music. You don't create music in a bubble, and I've always thought it was kind of silly when bands don't really put their influences on their sleeves because it's there. You walk in my room and it's full of records."