by Jon Hunt
Music critics are relentless classifiers. We love to put stuff in neat little color-coded manila folders – three bands come out with songs about cats and suddenly it’s “Cat Rock,” and we’re making lists about the “ten best Cat Rock bands” and telling everybody that we were into Cat Rock before everybody else and wearing cat t-shirts and – well, you get the idea. My point is: half the time, this stuff only exists in our own heads. It’s not real. Music is music is music and cannot be easily classified, and anal retentive music critics can’t make the square pegs fit into the damn round holes as much as we pound on ‘em with a gigantic metaphoric mallet (like this one).
So with that disclaimer/apology out of the way, I’m going to blatantly invent a new genre – “The New Wave of New Wave” – and tell you about three interesting albums in that made-up genre, and we’re gonna discuss whether they’re worth any kind of a goddamn or not. All of this with the knowledge that every bit of this might exist in the imagination of The Reviewer and nowhere else – that maybe this isn’t a trend but a mini “trendlet,” maybe; a little blip in the metamorphosis of rock into, say, electro-waltz or something.
“The New Wave of New Wave.” An ouroboros of a term, really, since to be “new wave” implies “newness” and to have a “new wave of something new” implies that it’s not really new at all. And that’s kind of the annoying/fascinating quality of this music, too – so obviously, flag-wavingly influenced by the most obvious, flag-waving members of the OLD wave of New Wave. And it’s about the fourth actual wave of ’80s-influenced stuff to hit the market, and as such it’s really the “newest wave” of new wave, I guess. New/old, stupid/smart, ironic/unironic/back-to-ironic again. You know. That equation.
Weirdly, nobody seems to have noticed that it’s a genre (and hell, maybe it’s not). It’s just that there’s a ton of bands – Passion Pit, Twin Shadow, Animal Kingdom, A Silent Film, Walk The Moon, the list goes on – sitting on the top of the charts, or burbling under it in the “if you like _____, you might also like _____” sections of whatever electronic delivery method you prefer, and nobody seems to have heard the similarities between ‘em. And so I claim it – “New Wave Of New Wave” is what I’m calling it (unless you think “Electro-Twee” is better – I’m open to discussion).
The album from our made-up genre that I’m most sure of is Passion Pit’s Gossamer, an aptly-named collection of catchy electronic frippery masquerading as something deeper (and achieving it, though not the way it tries to). It reminds me, on the surface, of a lot of some of the most easily-swallowed stuff from the first wave of new wave – early Talk Talk most of all, or Spandau Ballet – and that would probably chafe the butthole of lead Pit Michael Angelakos who I think views this stuff as avant, heartfelt folk-with-a-synth. But that fact that it isn’t is kind of why it’s any damn good. Let me explain.
Basically, the qualities this thing is being admired for – most of which center around Angelakos’ bipolarity, and include things like Deep Lyrics and Mad Genius Mystique that are frequently touchstones of critical darlings – aren’t what make this thing so great. Nor his “studio craftsmanship” or any of that other stuff he’s shooting for deliberately. Nor his “aching falsetto,” nor the sense of loss inherent in many of this group’s songs. I mean, that’s all fine and good, but that shit’s dime-a-dozen in the indie rock world (and is why it, largely, sucks).
What does make it interesting is that it’s an extremely radio-friendly record. It’s basically an Owl City album (or something) but with teeth (sharp ones!), some really cool arrangements and some absolutely gorgeous songs. And that’s no kind of bad thing – that’s always been my complaint about some of this album’s less-accessible electronic-indie forerunners (Christ-awful stuff everybody else loves, like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and whoever else), that their “experimentalism” was really just masking a distinct lack of hooks and total unprofessionalism in terms of arrangements.
Gossamer does not have that problem. The hits keep a-coming, and damned if you won’t find them drilled into your skull in the best possible way. Dig “Take A Walk,” with its big, bold, multi-colored pub-vocal chorus. Or “Carried Away,” a nicely propellant little pop song with a cool keyboard figure. Or my favorite, “On My Way,” an epic, arms-heavenward song with an almost Brian Wilson-y chord progression. And yeah, all those songs do have “aching falsetto” and “sense of loss” and “studio mastery,” but they act in service of the song, not the other way around. Which is as it should be.
I’m a little more ambivalent about Twin Shadow’s Confess. On the one hand, this is nowhere near as bad as some hysterical critics would suggest. There are good songs here (“When The Movie’s Over” or the deserved hit “Five Seconds”) and a few great ones (topped by the absolutely staggering “Beg For The Night”). And I love that auteur George Lewis Jr.’s influences range into the cheesier part of New Wave – the gurgly basslines suggest nothing so much as Stock-Aitken-Waterman productions of the late part of the ’80s, and that’s no kind of bad thing.
The problem with Confess, though, is that there are moments – like on the limp, inexplicably beloved “Run My Heart,” or the ripped-off-from-the-Cure-wholesale “The One,” where you can tell he’s not even trying. That he feels like he can get by on pure charm, that you’ll like anything he cares to foist on you because he’s cute and overconfident and has that sly little catch in his voice. This unevenness keeps this from being any kind of classic – a brilliant tune like “Golden Light” is followed by a limp, drab rocker like “You Call Me On,” and that’s right at the top of the record.
At least Lewis, apart from a little bit of too-cool-for-school irony, sounds like he means it. On their self-titled LP, Walk The Moon sound crafted by committee or focus group, catching every single touchstone of our new genre – Club beats! Synths! Herky-jerky rhythms! – but adding nothing new but a kind of irritating sameness. Thought Foster The People sounded like the popular jerks you hated in high school? These guys sound like the damn football team in comparison.
Listen to them try their damnedest, for example, to sound “soulful” on “Shiver Shiver” by dragging in ’80s R&B rhythm guitar and an awful-sounding falsetto. You can tell it doesn’t come from any kind of love of that music – more that somebody told them that it would sound right, or that it’s what the “kids” are digging these days. It’s that cynical. Hit “Anna Sun” sounds like any band (or worse, every band) – you can imagine it as the worst outtake on the worst Interpol album from a decade ago, a song they’d rejected for sounding too much like the Killers or something.
I don’t mind Sand and Snow by A Silent Film nearly as much, despite its hilarious overseriousness. I can’t tell if the group’s attempt at workin’ class storytelling’ a la Bruce Springsteen (“Danny, Dakota and the Wishing Well,” a terrible title but a not bad song) is as po-faced as it seems (maybe their tongues are in cheek? If so, props on not corpsing!) but it has some pretty big hooks and interesting synth bits nevertheless. And the band’s overweening sincerity carries songs like “Let Them Feel Your Heartbeat” and the synth-laced “Love Takes A Wrecking Ball” into “so cheesy they’re marvelous” territory.
The album’s worst flaw is falling back onto cliché now and again. The “ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, woh-oh-oh” chorus of “Harbour Lights” seems stolen from a better song. The big! echoey! piano! in “Cuckoo Song” seems like it’s looking for the right Coldplay or Killers tune to land in. And hey guys? The Editors want the big fuzzy bass from “Queen of a Sad Land” and “this Stage Is Your Life” back. Nevertheless, attention on songcraft makes this album work decently well – it at least sounds earnest and sincere which, compared to cynical garbage like Walk The Moon, is something to recommend it.
There you have it, folks: the good, the bad and the ugly of this new genre I’ve just invented. Feel free to sling it around to your friends (“Oh, you’re not into the New Wave Of New Wave? I was into it right after it was invented.”). It remains to be seen, though, whether this stuff has any staying power or just represents a blip in this year’s rock landscape. Heck, two months ago I was saying it was 1974. Now it’s 1984 again. I await the inevitable grunge revival.