From the moment their debut single ‘Love Got Me Into This Mess’ hit the internet in 2017, it was clear that Justine And The Unclean were something special. On that recording, the Boston band’s mix of pop punk and power pop greeted the listener in a fantastically upbeat fashion, and Justine Couvault’s distinctive, curly vocal style was impossible to ignore. As the follow up singles emerged, it was always possible to spot the band thanks to that vocal, and regardless of whatever style the music took, the Unclean continued to sound like a band with a real spirit. A little later, their first full length release ‘Get Unclean’ added some old school hard rock to an already potent mix, suggesting a great future ahead. Naturally, things went a little quiet in the Unclean camp during the pandemic years, but a trio of singles suggested the band had retained their sense of drive, and in 2021’s ‘Scorpion Bowl To Go’, it seemed as if they’d actually upped the ante in terms of catchy hooks.

Their long awaited ‘The Signal Light’ gives fans everything they’d hoped for. It still carries the confidence of earlier recordings, but its fair to say that it’s actually full of tunes where the band can be heard branching out, stylistically. An instant stand out, ‘Fourth Love’ isn’t shy in flaunting the band’s Boston origins, since the semi-acoustic, jangling indie pop isn’t a million miles away from a few tunes Evan Dando could’ve written. The way acoustic guitars strum heartily beneath a crying lead guitar immediately brings back memories of the classic ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads’, and a meatier lead guitar break – courtesy of Charles Hansen – accentuates a brilliant bar room/country rock feel. This mid tempo melody is perfect for allowing Covault an opportunity to stretch out, and she adds a vocal that, although is easily recognisable as being the same voice from earlier power pop tunes, has a more heartfelt quality to match the downbeat lyric. All things considered, it’s easily one of the best Unclean tracks to date – and it’s up against some stiff competition.

Released as a digital single ahead of the album, ‘The Chasm’ brings a massive arrangement to the table. Once again, there are elements of old Lemonheads fare propping up the riffs, but in this instance, the influence comes from the band’s noisier, formative years (circa ‘Lick’). Across three minutes, a combination of crashing rhythms and soaring vocals dominate, and despite sounding at odds with each other during the opening verse, everything soon settles into a hard edged power pop track where Covault’s vocals bring forth a massive appeal. Janet Egan King fills space with a meaty bassline and Hansen returns with a careening guitar solo that sounds so much as if it’ll come off the rails, it adds a real energy to an already great piece. The title cut applies a 50s style guitar twang to a particularly meaty groove, where deeper guitar tones are contrasted by some brilliant pop harmonies. With everything anchored by a tough bassline where descending notes fill space in a really effective way, the track shows The Unclean’s gift for a different kind of retro rock, before ‘When I Stopped Loving You’ changes the mood yet again, presenting a 70s inspired torch song that could’ve been spawned by one of the era’s great singer songwriters. Sounding almost nothing like the band who gave us ‘Scorpion Bowl’ in 2021, there’s a timeless feel to the arrangement, with Hansen’s fine, bluesy guitar and Covault’s impassioned voice providing the highlights. That is, until the track’s second half, when the rockier elements fall away to uncover a sad cello line, supplied by Lauren Parks (also affiliated with Boston’s Adam Sherman Band). As good as it was, there was little on 2017’s ‘Get Unclean’ LP that ever suggested this band could deliver something quite so…classic sounding, but here it is, and although it mightn’t be an instant hit with those who love the punchier material, it’s definitely a massive step forward.

‘You And Me Against You And Me’ latches onto a great live in the studio sound that makes Jim Janota’s drum kit sound absolutely massive, and allows Couvault’s rhythm guitar to push forth with an almost equally huge ringing sound. The tempo is decidedly mid paced, and even though The Unclean often sound better when aiming for something more upbeat, there’s something immediately loveable about the melody’s forlorn nature. Maybe it’s that the tones and tempo occasionally hint at Justine’s love of country music – as explored with her Black Threads side project – or maybe its just that the tune’s desire not to rush allows her to apply some huge vocal notes that really envelop the listener. Whatever it is, it works, and the result is the kind of tune that not only shows what a well rounded bunch of musicians The Unclean are, it also shows how a more mature sound can have as much power as their knockabout punk-ish riffery.

Elsewhere, ‘Drug Seeking Behaviour’ revisits a similar sound to ‘Fourth Love’, but stokes up the vocal harmonies in a way that makes it sound bigger and a little more immediate, and pushes Egan King’s bass further forward in the mix, bringing an extra weight to some rootsy pop rock, and ‘Breaking The Devil Out Of Hell’ finds Justine and the band chugging through some brilliantly lop-sided blues rock where an aggressive slide guitar smothers a punchy rock groove. The juxtaposition of the slide guitar’s unease and Covault’s sugary vocal works brilliantly, but the track’s actually at its best during a couple of instrumental breaks when the slide guitar adds a couple of angry fills against a Zeppelin-esque drum part, and Hansen’s lead guitar attacks with a suitable grittiness.

In addition to those great numbers, a few earlier digital singles bring the ‘The Signal Light’ up to full length, and although a couple of those are almost three years old by the time of this album’s release, they don’t sound out of place at all. Slated for a 2020 release that was provisionally titled ‘Every Bone That Breaks’, ‘Picking A Fight’ is straight up, classic Unclean, as the band mix pop punk riffs with a bar-room swagger, all topped with Covault’s curly, sugary vocal. One of the band’s best arrangements, it’s almost as if they’ve blended old riffs from Dead Boys tunes with a pop chorus borrowed from the legendary Jane Wiedlin. ‘Sweet Denial’ is a great showcase for the band’s harder side as they channel a riff that sounds like it could’ve been inspired by the moodier bits of Aerosmith’s ‘Rocks’. Once that’s coupled that to another hefty drum part for extra impact, it becomes a monster. It’s far more about riffs than hooks, but with the volume cranked it sounds fantastic. …And then, there’s the aforementioned, ‘Scorpion Bowl’, a tune with a really aggressive chorus hook where Covault’s squeakier tones reign and her repeated delivery of the title results in a strange but nagging earworm. Musically, Hansen throws out chunky riffs against a great vocal melody, and more than ever, places Justine and co. within a world that seems to inhabit a noisier version of Letters To Cleo. It says a lot about the variety and quality of ‘The Signal Light’ that this now sounds like one of the weaker numbers, but heard in isolation, it still shares a brilliant energy.

With solid musicianship and a few different musical styles at their disposal, the band deserve to expand their fan base with this record – it’s genuinely great. If you haven’t heard Justine And The Unclean before, this would actually be a good place to dive into their work. With a bigger exploration of slower, more melodic arrangements, the bulk of ‘The Signal Light’ is far more sophisticated than Justine’s previous albums, but this leap into a more mature sound seems very natural. In fact, it has resulted in an album that’s peak Unclean; a filler free twelve track affair that comes highly recommended.

June 2023