Remo Drive: A Portrait of an Ugly Man (Epitaph) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, January 20th, 2021  

Remo Drive

A Portrait of an Ugly Man


Jun 30, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Remo Drive’s debut, 2017’s Greatest Hits, was quite simply a classic emo record. With corrosive riffs, memorable hooks, and pop-punk vocals that all hold an uncanny similarity to Weezer’s Pinkerton, the band seemed to strike gold at their first plunge. But almost immediately after signing to Epitaph, drummer Sam Mayths was mysteriously removed from the group, leaving brother duo Erik (vocals, guitar) and Stephen Paulson (bass) on their own. This loss was tangible on 2019’s sophomore slump Natural, Everyday Degradation. Besides key tracks like “The Grind” and AC/DC inspired/appropriated(?) “Shakin,” Remo Drive seemed to lose their grit. What was once grunge turned power-pop with mid-tempo songwriting, milder tones, and crisper, but arguably less interesting production. It felt like Remo Drive was unsure of—even bored of—themselves; they just couldn’t quite relight the spark that illuminated Greatest Hits.  

To be fair, the emo circle is a bit crowded—Jeff Rosenstock, PUP, Oso Oso, Tiny Moving Parts, etc. Growth as a band is important, sure, and it isn’t wrong to remove yourself from the familiar and take a different route. But to do it successfully takes more direction and fuel than that provided. 

And now we have A Portrait of an Ugly Man—an album that finally feels fully Remo Drive’s as it was recorded in the Paulson basement, self produced, and mixed. Although not nearly as truculent and coarse as Greatest Hits, Remo Drive revisits the similar frustrated ennui found on the debut. But this time, it’s with a Western movie inspired twang. Long gone are the days of Remo Drive wailing about art school girls, fat blunts, and eating shit. They’re ready to adventure into a new frontier now: their own psyche. 

Unsurprisingly, the “Portrait of an Ugly Man isn’t pretty. Ugly, though? Maybe, but it’s more psychological than it is physical. It’s the struggle to understand the reflection looking back at you in the mirror. Really, It’s an interrogation into the forces that construct the portrait. At first glance, these strokes seem to be conducted by someone else’s hands. 

“A Guide to Live By” kicks off the album with charging, twangy guitars and brooding keys as Erik begins to sing: “Oh what a glorious hour to be obscured by a mask.” Unlike the rest of the world, however, the mask here isn’t trying to fend off an infection. Instead, it’s fitted to your face in order to “to construct an illusion and to live in it.” It’s essentially an introduction to a main character (which one can assume can be based on Erik); a character that feels destined to be plagued by tragedy. 

Our hero then lands in “Star Worship,” a track that carries over the same sinewy guitars and trudging drums of the previous tune. But this sound has more of a calmer edge, as if our hero is trekking through a dusty, barren landscape lost in his thoughts. He’s still trying to navigate himself, and the map seems to point toward using reverence instead of confidence. “Often I’m naked posing in the mirror,” Erik sings “Trying to look unlike myself/I’m a child standing in your shoes/I’m imitating all of your moves.” 

It doesn’t look too good for our protagonist from then on. “Dead Man” is as pessimistic as it sounds, with our hero feeling destined to lead a shameful, insufficient life (“Well if I’m already a dead man /Why not just go ahead and paint a target on my chest”). Like our leading man, the album itself hits a lull here. There is little deviation from the tracks for any of them to really stand out. Besides the more uptempo, “If I’ve Ever Looked Too Deep In Thought” each interminable track feels like fraternal twins of each other in both sound and theme. Thankfully, the second half of the album begins to pick up speed a little. 

“The Ugly Man Sings” brings in some more dynamics: a funky bassline, beguiling keys, and a built-up pre-chorus that leads to Erik singing in his chest voice asking to be put back inside his mother. “True Romance Lives” might be the standout track of the album. Essentially about selling your soul to capitalism, we’re given whirling guitars, a pleading chorus of harmonies followed by a pause, a hi-hat hit, and a meowing-guitar break down. The bridge feels like a cousin of Greatest Hits with Erik scream-pleading: “Take me now/I’m not sure how long we have before I’m down,” and ending with a gentle piano melody. 

Although the later end of LP picks up speed, the self-deprecation persists. There is no resolution to be found, no long-awaited epiphany. “The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive” nears it, though. There is an obvious divide between the real Erik and the lost character found on the album(s). The real one wants him to know he’s trying to help merge them back together. This dejection, apparently, is simply a learning tool. “I’d hate to see you hurt but how else will I ever get through to you?/All I want, yes all I want is what is the very best for you.” He even chasticizes him for his alleged three albums of mistakes: “Come on you’re killing me,” he declares, calling back to the popular Greatest Hits track. 

In the end, it’s undetermined if our hero will ever see himself for who he is. On the final song “Easy as That,” he knows he’s been “lying to himself,” but offers no anecdote to his delusion. “If all that goes up must come down, how long do I have before I hit the ground?” 

In total, Portrait of an Ugly Man is a bleak record. But feelings of uncertainty and loss aren’t exclusive to cowboys; often, many find themselves trudging through the tumbleweeds, unable to recognize the eyes staring back at them. It’s a human experience, albeit an unfortunate one. But the record finds Remo Drive at its most personal; its darkest yet. And where the instrumentation might feel monotonous at times, their is always a line, a hook, a scream, or a shout that opens a wound you never knew you had. (

Author rating: 6.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10


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