Monday, April 25, 2011
Album: Dead to Me
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Rating: ******** (8/10)
At this point, it's becoming increasingly difficult to review bands that sound like C86, because I'm starting to feel like I've heard every one of these records before, dozens of times; someone just changed the titles of the tracks.
If you aren't familiar with C86, it's a compilation cassette that was released by NME and Rough Trade Records in 1986. A similar compilation had been released five years prior (C81), but while C81 actually documented the British indie scene in 1981, C86 was less representative and more of an attempt to steer the British indie scene. For better or worse (mostly worse), it succeeded - the scattered jangly guitar bands with their wimpy pop tunes, inspired by forerunners like Orange Juice in Scotland and Young Marble Giants in Wales, coalesced into the twee/anorak/shambling/C86 indie pop movement of the late 80's and early 90's.
The movement, led by Sarah Records and bands like the Field Mice and Heavenly, fizzled out by the mid-90's. The movement did a lot for indie rock - namely, freeing it of the machismo and chauvinism that dominated first hard rock and then punk and then hardcore - and produced some truly great records. The impact of the indie pop movement can still be felt across the indie world: most indie rockers are now ultrawimps and that's been the case since the mid-90's - twee faded out organically when its mission was accomplished and it was no longer relevant.
But suddenly, round about 2008, a whole new generation seemed to discover C86 and Sarah Records. And there's something still relevant about that music, perhaps just the clear message it conveys that anyone can have a band. Plus, there were a lot of forgotten gems that the new wave of indie bands dusted off and brought back to light: Black Tambourine, the Vaselines, etc. But it's three years later, three years of albums with wimpy vocal melodies, shimmery, jangly guitars, low production values and so so so so so so much reverb. Three years of bands with children's haircuts waxing lyrical about the glory days of Sarah and Slumberland, or if they're a little more sophisticated, Rough Trade and Postcard.
So, where does that leave Girls Names full-length debut? The truth is Dead To Me is one of the best C86-styled records of the new generation. It's hard for me to get past the fact that I have to sit through yet another record that sounds exactly like C86, but at least this one begins to do its influences justice.
The record starts out with a very promising stew of melancholy guitar so heavily processed its sounds more like a synthesizer. A swelling cloud of dark noise looms over the guitar, but then suddenly, the cloud breaks giving way to a truly great, clean-guitar riff. In fact, the first 60 seconds or so of the record don't sound like C86 at all.
But it's downhill from there, and fast. For the rest of the first track, muted drums clatter and the vocal melody floats around lazily. It's not bad, it's just been done. A lot. However, there are some noteworthy facets to the song and the two that follow, "I Could Die" and "When You Cry." First, the band is not afraid of being good at guitar, even soloing briefly. Second, the band is not as afraid of noise as many of their counterparts. They don't use much distortion, but their guitars come in and out with overdriven edges that give the music some muscle. Third, their songs are skillfully arranged with contours that propel them forward, instruments carefully entering and exiting, carving out a song that's more than just chords+beat+melody.
A number of the following songs fail to hold attention not because they are poorly constructed songs but because they are so "samey" with each other and with a zillion other bands. "I Lose" is the next track to really grab attention. The track starts with the classic dreamy drum beat of "Just Like Honey" and bright, tremolo'ed (vibrato'ed) chords which do just what an introduction should do, introduce the song, which kicks in after half a minute with sparkling guitar arpeggios and a driving drum beat. The quick guitar and drums are balanced with measured vocals, and periodically trip back to half-temo as Cathal Cully repeats in brilliantly unconvincing terms "I don't miss my old life."
The subsequent songs slip back in the forgettable swamp of samey-ness. To be fair, they are all very well written songs, but they fail to capture the listener's attention. The slower "Kiss Goodbye" stands out for its slight swing. And the closer, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," from its dark flickering intro, the way it seems to flit between major and minor keys and the depth of noise that grows throughout the track's three minutes, is a worthy finale. In the last seconds of the album, the digital-era effects of the opening 30 seconds make a reappearance, hinting frustratingly at what the album could have been with modern production.
If the band had skipped the low production values and the reverb, this album could have really shined. But the band is condemning themselves, sealing their own fate, by placing themselves decidedly behind a curve, even if they are better than the bands ahead of them. Props to the band for knowing exactly what they're doing though: on their myspace page, they describe their music as "disposable noise pop songs." They also wear their influences on their sleeve: the Pastels, Beat Happening, Josef K, Black Tambourine. But these influences are on the dark and heavy side of indie pop and Dead to Me is the better for it. The album runs deeper than the band's own description would imply. It's just a few years too late to stand out from the crowd the way it deserves to. [MySpace].