Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Album: Not Nothing
Rating: ****** (6/10)
It may not seem fair, but timing is key in the world of pop music. A few years ago, Not Nothing would have been an interesting release but in 2011, the message is loud and clear: "Hi, we're Xray Eyeballs and we're a few years late to the party!" From the first reverbed notes on, Not Nothing identifies itself of a carbon copy of just about every band from the Woodsist-Siltbreeze-In the Red-Captured Tracks-HoZac catalog in the last three or four years, all jangly, lo-fi post punk with, gosh, a lot of reverb. A laundry list of bands to do just this could fill pages, but to name a few: Eat Skull, Vivian Girls, Beach Fossils, Thee Oh Sees, Babies, Dum Dum Girls, Real Estate, Fresh & Onlys, Nodzzz, Woven Bones, Crystal Stilts, Blank Dogs, Woods, Little Girls.....getting the picture?
Xray Eyeballs fall towards the darker end of this spectrum, evoking the discordant noise of Eat Skull (but with slightly less nasty lo-fi-ity) and the haunted post-gothic textures of Blank Dogs (but with no synths). It's that darkness that makes me think I might have enjoyed this if I'd heard it in 2008. But even at its freshest, the reverby lo-fi post-punk was a little stale by its very nature, and after the basic sound has been recycled dozens and dozens of time, there's simply no life left to suck out of it. Yes, Xray Eyeballs inhabit their own little slice of the genre, but it's a narrow slice with a lot of neighbors. The most distinctive aspect of Xray Eyeballs is their sneering, drunken vocal approach, but that alone isn't really enough to hold anyone's attention.
The opening track, "Crystal" starts with the same deep droning rhythm as a particular Bauhaus song (I forget which one [edit: it's "Double Dare"]) but the pace quickly establishes the song as more 1961 pop than 1980 dirge. "Nightwalkers" also takes a cue from the 80's with a riff that's more than a little reminiscent of a particular uptempo Cure song (I forget which one [edit: still can't figure it out, maybe it's not the Cure, but it's definitely something. Someone wanna help me out?]) but again bears more in common with the 60's than the 80's (or at least the 60's via post punkers like the Jesus and Mary Chain, who upped Brian Wilson's Beach Boys reverb to the point where it sounded like everything had been recorded in a cave). The third track, "Egyptian Magician" is a catchy ditty with sparkly guitar and anthemic vocals that are best enjoyed if you can ignore the unbelievably bad lyrics ("Let's take a ride to the sky / let's all get high"). Any momentum gained is sacrificed by the slow, western-inflected and extremely lamentably titled "Po' Jam." Name aside, "Po' Jam" is a valiant effort at a ballad which comes closer than most at pulling back the pace without stagnating. But for all the effort, the results are just so-so.
"Drums Not Dead," apparently named in reference to Liars' 2006 concept album of the same name (plus apostrophe), is one of the album's more interesting tracks. However, it's far more suggestive of lo-fi synthsters Blank Dogs than of Liars (who, unlike Xray Eyeballs, actually produce original and interesting music). In "Drums," the band swaps live drums for a drum machine and drive their plaintive guitar drone even deeper into chorus and reverb. That, in combination with the darkly chanted, lo-fi vocal tracks, makes the song legitimately haunting and would do Mike Sniper proud.
The subsequent tracks, "Broken Beds," "Xray Eyeballs Theme," "Kam Sing Knights," are all catchy, dark pop. The songs are well-structures and the melodies have hooks aplenty. But with a samey sheen and the world's most obvious two and three chord progressions, there's little to differentiate these songs from the similar output of the dozens upon dozens of bands that have been doing this same thing in recent years. Xray Eyeballs have mastered the form, but at this point, it's really hard to care. "Fake Wedding" is a bit of a standout, a bit bolder of a statement, but not by much. The closing track, "Escape from that Girl," is all Velvets and quickly bulldozes any interest you might have had left.
The adjective that best describes Not Nothing is "forgettable." And that has almost everything to do with timing - Xray Eyeballs are latecomers to a very overcrowded party, one that's been simply recycling its own output for several years. Sure, Xray Eyeballs have their own unique balance of these tired flavors, but despite their skill, the ingredients they are using went stale long ago.