Sometimes bands really hit the nail on the head when they find a term to describe themselves in online bios, and Los Angeles quartet Rivals did exactly that with the words “dark pop”. Their 2018 debut album ‘Damned Soul’ refined their early sound into a slick blend of accessible, spirited pop and moody rock, packing a lot of emotional weight into its ten songs and allowing the band to carve their own new niche in the wide world of pop rock.
Three years on, second album ‘Sad Looks Pretty On Me’ picks up where their debut left off, once again finding the sweet spot between darkness and light as it opens with a trio of previously released singles – title track ‘Sad Looks Pretty On Me’, ‘Lavenders’, and ‘Alkaline’. They’re perfect examples of the sound Rivals have already established their dominance in; swirling pastel colours with a darkness at their core, driven forward by boundless energy in the drums and pulsing bass. Although they don’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, there’s nothing tired about these songs – in the way that ‘Lavenders’ feels like the perfect tune to spin joyously around the room to, or in the way that ‘Alkaline’ rolls in like thunder before exposing a delicate, sensitive side.
Despite not generally straying too far from the familiar, there are a few places where Rivals dabble in additional elements on their second release, convincingly demonstrating that they’re more than capable of branching out further in future. The best example of this is single ‘Fake Rich’, a snarling, witty track that takes on influencer culture with the help of a crushing breakdown and guest spot from Cane Hill’s Elijah Witt; there’s still plenty of poppy melody, but with the heaviness cranked up a few notches, it’s a more than welcome change of pace in the middle of the album.
Although five singles were released ahead of the album, there are still plenty of new tracks to unearth here – and the second half of the record is a veritable treasure trove of gems. From the self-reflective atmospheric sound of ‘Little Mistakes’ to the suy, dancing swagger of ‘On The Loose’, it’s a varied and well balanced journey that, like the album as a whole, finds a thematic focus in identity, self-belief, and striving for better for ourselves. At the same time, these songs rarely feel too overwhelming; instead, the genuine depth, soul, and hope expressed by vocalist Kalie Wolfe feels validating and uplifting, a comforting hand from people who’ve been through the same things and have, one way or another, made it to the other side. A notable exception is ‘To Dom’, with the personal nature of the story making it a difficult listen, despite an overarching message of love and support – listening as an outsider it at times feels like we’re intruding, but equally, that personal element is a sharp reminder of the real stories behind the songs we find our comfort in.
Seeing the album out is one of the most expansive, atmospheric tracks Rivals have crafted to date in ‘Why’, a haunting plea for answers that never come; it’s a sombre but powerful finish that exposes a raw vulnerability the rest of the album seems to have been battling, winding down to a whispered farewell. With ‘Sad Looks Pretty On Me’, Rivals have created an album that is all at once emotive, energising, and memorable, adding polish to their unique sound to deliver twelve songs that demand repeated listens. They may not be the most well known of bands on this side of the pond just yet, but with a release this strong, it’s surely only a matter of time before word gets out – and every bit of attention will be more than deserved.