!!! // THR!!!ER // April 28, 2013 // Warp
The coolest parts of the last decade have taught indie kids how to dance. The American dance punk movement provided some laughs and some good music that went out of fashion as soon as the kids ran out of alcohol. For what The Rapture brought to the table with their music to drink cheap beer to, California’s !!! equaled with their funky soundtrack to suck a dick to. Their sound has more nods towards funk and post-punk but back then people wanted to dance, they didn’t care about the details. Now they no longer feel like doing it and listening to a new !!! record, especially when you consider that all out title THR!!!ER, feels a bit like being embarrassed by seeing the pictures of what you did last night while under the influence.
There’s a lot to be embarrassed by when it comes to enjoying !!!. They overload their music with ridiculous amounts of camp atmosphere that doesn’t necessarily translate into their music, which can be regarded as passable indie funk by white people who got their funk on from James Brown’s greatest hits album. They’re a bunch of twats too. Their lead singer Nic Offer can make every single person in the world feel awkward, all thanks to his dance moves. The band as a collection of musicians is over the top and their music is sultry in some pretty bad ways. Their take on funk is often awkward and the results are stuck somewhere between the temptation to make out with thick rimmed glasses and realisation of just how limited the band are when they are not writing a pop song. This is best evidenced on the band’s best record Myth Takes, a collection of solid singles that are brought down by pointless, tuneless meandering tracks that make the band sound like a sober jam group out of their depth. THR!!!ER feels like the mixture of the two worlds. The band are neither partying, nor are they completely sober. It’s the group’s least awkward record but at the same time, it’s their least fun one too. As if you didn’t know already, !!! are shit if you’re not in your underwear.
The songs on here are non-committal and lighthearted, not really dance music but something that does possess a slight chance of making the listener tap their feet. This lacklustre approach to songwriting and a lack of focus directed towards one or two strong jams make !!!’s fifth album a semi conscious dirge. Like, unless you’re on the receiving end of an anal pounding today, THR!!!ER is not for you. That’s quite a fall from grace for a band who five years ago sounded like they were hell bent on writing the perfect soundtrack to giving a blowjob. THR!!!ER offers some of the weakest songs the band has written to date that have little to nothing to do with funk in the first place while still having that quirky dance sound which has aged worse than disco. There’s more emphasis on jamming but it’s pointless when the songs don’t lead into anything. Take Except Death, which starts out as dancefloor gospel before simply trailing out with a guitar workout that doesn’t even feel like it utilises more than three notes. There’s a bigger rock influence in the way that this record is produced. The bass is dirtier and the vocals are less playful. Sometimes (Fine Fine Fine) they even sound like they’re lifted from a Bowie record but the trick is, our David isn’t a twat. The most outlandish and camp !!! ever get on here is when they introduce a totally pointless female choir on One Girl / One Boy or the aforementioned Except Death. The results are Grace Jones level of filth. None of these songs have strong bass lines that would lead the dance. Where their best material sounds on rails and sweaty, here !!! are dealing with the sort of reverb enhanced space that makes THR!!!ER feel like a windy and cold album being blown across the desert. Except less gay.
Who exactly are still listening to dance punk freaks in this day and age is beyond our imagination. !!! are no longer interested themselves as on their fifth record they sound like they want to evolve into something else without losing the camp values that made them noticeable in the first place. THR!!!ER features nine limp jams that feature a lot of space but little to no forward pushing direction or at least s strong hook. The jams themselves are unimaginative but rather than forcing the repetition to at least make this danceable, !!! act as if their instrumentals are something worth saving. THR!!!ER is an incredibly bad record, which puts it right next to !!!’s other releases. They difference here is, you can no longer play the “dance” card. It may not be the worst album of the year but my god, it certainly is the most worthless one and unfathomably joyless one.
Ra Ra Riot // Beta Love // January 22, 2013 // Barsuk
Ra Ra Riot are one of those bands that are not documenting their progress nearly as enough as they should. They were existing way before everyone, including your Reddit browsing grandmother started using the word hipster as a derogatory term. Despite all that, Beta Love is only their third record and at best, these record have been disjointed pieces that don’t necessarily link with each other to make Ra Ra Riot an engaging band to follow. Why are we saying all of this? Probably because their new record Beta Love feels miles away from who they are and is closer to the sound that their skeletal baroque pop was antidote to in the first place.
Beta Love is a synthpop record. And we’re not implying that they’ve exchanged one of their string players for some sensible keyboards. Beta Love doesn’t have a single speck of what made this band worthwhile in the first place as it consists of little more than overeager pop songs on a shiny new keyboard. Shiny is the word on Beta Love, a record that goes against the simplicity of the band by overcompensating in saturated fat hooks that clash with each other and simply can’t sink in. This is nowhere near the feel good pop that the band think it is. Take the title track. The falsetto chorus and crashing synths make it a jarring experience that is tacky and lacking in any composure that was previously demonstrated on their debut and their best record to date, The Rhumb Line. Beta Love is front loaded both in its hooks and try-hard nature. The first half has so much falsetto and sparkly stabs that are simply ridiculous. Like, you wouldn’t want to be caught listening to this. The vocals themselves are hilarious, always bearing on the edge of what singer can do with his voice and frankly, falsetto isn’t for him. Beta Love feels almost like a reaction to their nearly hookless second record The Orchard and while pop charms are galore on here, the sense of grace or any kind of depth is virtually non existent.
Here at Seal On Psychedelics we always emphasise that complete musical change of direction is fine as long as you back it up with an idea of how your new path has an intersection with your previously established aesthetic. Beta Love has few string parts here are there but otherwise this is one of the bigger 180 degree turns we’ve heard in recent memory. The first thing that comes to mind is that awkward moment when The Morning Benders changed their name to Pop Etc and made that embarrassing record that had nothing to do with anything other than mediocre MOR. Ra Ra Riot come close to doing the same, but under the same name. The most sensible way is still to approach Beta Love as a record from an entirely different band, one that more in common with teenage plebness of groups like Foster The People or Passion Pit. Beta Love sits somewhere in the middle between those two, harboring mainstream ambitions yet aiming for some sort of introspective depth. It doesn’t really have any sort of narrative going on and on repeated listens some tracks get better while others continue their quick fade. It’s a record with few singles and handful of tracks that are just about so so. Ra Ra Riot retain a little bit of sense of individuality by not going for current trends (bar What I Do For U, a bass heavy attempt at the current bass heavy pop). This saves the record from being mediocre kitsch of contemporary pop but more or less obliterates any chance that Beta Love has of being a cross over success. If you make synthpop at least make it sound like it’s for the kids. All Beta Love does is it makes me want to go pimp out my Myspace profile. Except I don’t remember the password to it. Disappointing.
Beta Love has its set of paybacks when its about to break down. The middle part of the record gives some much needed breathing space and our favourite moment has to be the guitar dirge of That Much which emphasises the synthetic nature of such music. And frankly, terrible vocals and baby’s first pop record instrumentals would be alright if Ra Ra Riot at least hinted that they may do something like this. As a stand alone record Beta Love is baffling, an album that will raise more questions and eyebrows than legs and hands. The glucose of this album makes me experience that feeling where you eat so much chocolate that you get sick in your mouth and can’t look at sweets for the rest of the day. Beta Love sums up that feeling from the very first keyboard stab and overacted falsetto.
Chad Valley // Young Hunger // October 30 // Cascine
For better or worse I am old enough to remember the decline in the British indie rock that happened around 4/5 years ago. Guitars went out of fashion quicker than you can name who was on the front page of the NME. Suddenly old school pop became ironically cool again. In the present day good pop music is cool without need for irony but present day is not something that Young Hunger by Oxford’s Chad Valley is aiming for. On his debut album he is stuck in the past, trying to impress new generation of pop fans with average 80s pastiches taking pictures of himself between flowers.
Admittedly I don’t feel like I’m old enough to remember when the whole of music shifted towards the dancefloor in the UK. Could be the moment when Bloc Party started dropping their early singles, might be when people actually considered Hot Hot Heat to be good. The point is, the fact that all pop nowadays is aiming for the dancefloor was long coming and shouldn’t surprise anyone. Chad Valley seems to be oblivious to it as while his music is unquestionably influenced by the sunshine boom of the balearic pop, the structures of his music contain little of what could be described as dance music. On Young Hunger he is completely and utterly missing the point, imitating George Michael and Human League without making it dancefloor friendly in the present day. There have been many good 80s revival albums because they did that, revived the 80s sound. Chad Valley doesn’t update the sound to the present day and his idea of revival is basically digging up the cadaver. To young ears 80s new romantic and synthpop might not sound like dance music (thanks to the technological advancements) but the decade’s biggest pop hits were dance music. Young Hunger is nostalgic dance music without the dance part.
Chad Valley manages to get a rather impressive cast of guests on Young Hunger. Twin Shadow, Glasser and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs are only few examples on the record that doesn’t welcome these guests as much as it goes out of its way to somehow make them fit, making all of this feel calculated rather than a natural choice that actually benefits these tracks. It’s not like any of them bar Twin Shadow fit in here as he’s the only one that mixes arena sized 80s synthpop with ironic chillwave. The rest of the guests either feel awkward or are too hard to even notice. Young Hunger then spends the rest of its time trying to craft pop songs that have been done before to much better results and comes away completely embarrassed. My Girl may the only the fourth track on here but with its references to Spice Girls it’s the point where a lot of people will tune off. More so, Chad Valley has an annoying habit of oversinging, the problem being is that his voice is really poor on here, lacking any personality than would set him apart from faceless VH1 Friday night drones. Mixing between the Duran Duran lust on Evening Surrender and half arsed falsetto on the rest of these tracks Chad Valley sounds like the sort of person who is clinically afraid of the idea of having a single original thought.
Not that many people were expecting something else but it’s still sad to confirm that Young Hunger is below par chillwave record without any haze, just full on nostalgia for the worst pop music recorded in the history of modern pop music. The worst thing is, Chad Valley doesn’t even sound like he’s being ironic, coming across as the sort of person who dances on his bed while listening to Wham! and thinking to himself “I don’t care if I’m not cool, I do whatever I want”. Good for him but Young Hunger might as well be one of the most uninspired chillwave punchlines out there.
Diamond Rings // Free Dimensional // October 22 // Astralwerks
Whoever said that synthesisers will go out of fashion was quite clearly a fool. After making the return in the noughties the so called 80s revival is lasting nearly a decade and created many fresh synth led ideas in the process. If anything its guitars that will eventually be forgotten. Canada’s Josh O’Regan who goes by the name of Diamond Rings sees no problem with mixing two together creating the darkness of late 70s post-punk and then seeping through it with bright neon colours of 80s synthpop.
Free Dimensional is Diamond Rings’ second studio LP and it doesn’t break boundaries as much as it polishes things. One can instantly tell that by looking at the album covers. While at the beginning of his career the flamboyance and face paint might have been seen as slightly off beat, the simple photograph of his debut Special Affections pales in comparison to the new one which describes O’Regan as some sort of synthpop Klaus Nomi. He isn’t and the biggest trouble one could have with Free Dimensional is expecting a lot from it. It’s a pop record with hooks, sing alongs and well written melodies that guarantee that there are very few throwaway moments on Free Dimensional which is definitely an improvement upon O’Regan’s debut. The songs on this album in particular are taking their influences from a wider variety of cult heroes new and old. Runaway Love, while being a typical synthpop track, somehow manages to resemble The Strokes while the first single I’m Just Me comes across as one of the more hopeful and dancefloor friendly Depeche Mode moments. Free Dimensional doesn’t feel as burdened that it has to nail one particular sound and allows itself some freedom.
Then there’s moment when it sounds like you’re listening to a debatable compilation stretching around 10 years of musical history. O’Regan used to play in a post-punk band called The D’Urbervilles which makes it clear where his deep vocals come from but on his own music they don’t always mix together. The couple of tracks on here that feature deep vocals on the verses before changing into the standard singing voice for the chorus sound like an average karaoke attempts by someone who had one too many drinks. Neither of O’Regan’s vocal types are bad but they don’t always mix together without sounding forced and while he uses his standard voice for most of the tracks here, the best and most memorable moments are the ones where he comes across as dark. Despite his vocal manners, the best tracks on here are the least serious. Hand Over My Heart features a timeless hook that has been written by hundreds of artists before, not because it’s derivative but because it’s that good while the sassy (I Know) What I’m Made Of and the closer Day & Night even features a couple of brilliant rap verses. Instrumental moments and vocal hooks are the best as they detract from O’Regan’s lyrics. He might be overly flamboyant and his music might ooze camp but don’t expect him to make any pro-gay statements on here. Lyrics on the album speak and understanding yourself and coming to terms with who you are but in the end, very little of that actually gets past Diamond Rings’ imagination leaving the listener guessing. This year we have been spoiled by one of the best pro-gay statements in a long time. No, not that. I’m talking about Le1f’s mixtape Dark York which was an unapologetic statement of “fuck you bitch, I’m badass”. Diamond Rings almost ignores this factor and to be fair, his stage persona requires him to live up to itself with these songs and to be honest it doesn’t. You can’t seem like one of the more interesting people in underground pop and then just say “I’m just me”.
The underwhelming, if still decent lyrical matter might make Free Dimensional less of a fierce beast that it could’ve been but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pop album where every track is crammed with so many hooks you could have a stab in the dark regarding his next single and any choice would be a good choice. It’s ten songs from a songwriter that understands the style of music he is trying to emulate here instead of just the usual hurr durr analog synthesisers. Free Dimensional might share its set of problems with 80s records and doesn’t innovate anything at all but when O’Regan steps out from the cliche into the weird he can be quite a showman. Based on the highlights of Free Dimensional, show must go on.