Wednesday, July 30, 2008

VII: Tijuana Hangover

Now think about what this band could sound like on their first full length. Think about what it could sound like when they tighten up the beats and make the arrangements go somewhere, but keep the fun and the energy. Think about what it will sound like when you’re pushing those nifty bass lines through something other than your computer speakers. And think what will happen when that bass player realizes he can play half the notes and be twice as awesome. Pretty sweet, right? (10/08/07)

At Indefinite Articles, the writers undertake Preemptive Strikes, a category of posts subtitled: "Movies we haven't seen, books we haven't read, games we haven't played." Their Long Hauls tackle bodies of work as varied as Highlander, Star Trek: TOS, Doug, and Metal Gear Solid. Writing this as I am under the marque of my series of a season of a show off the air for nearly five years, I have a certain affinity for this project.

Between these two extremes of criticism, lies the status quo of the blogosphere. With neither the willingness to admit to their preconceptions nor the reflection of posterity, the electronically chattering class hops to keyboards as quickly as possible to register its opinions on whatever movie or record crosses their path. Now that "the scoop" is had by hitting post as quickly as possible, one needs only get a link to an mp3 and the critical equivalent of "OMG FRIST!" to claim blog supremacy. Beware quality; that way outdated timestamps lay.

Thus, we have the cycle of buzz: a band exists, gains exposure and then hits critical mass. Immediately, there is a spike in the blogosphere's attention before the only one's inquiring are the one's who care about the music. The brown dwarf that remains after a buzz band's rise to glory.

It was after just such supernova that I first looked at the Black Kids. It was October and I was hopeful. Going back and listening to Wizard of Ahhhhs, I can't help but feel it still. Listening to "Hit the Heartbreaks" the mugginess that pulls the voices together and makes a frenzy of the synthesizers and teenaged voices may not sound professional, but it lent them an urgency more compelling than most punk bands.

On Partie Traumatic, The Black Kids lose this along with much of what made them so special. One of the difficulties in listening to a band that cleans up its sound having finally gained access to professional studio, gear, and production assistance is trying to disentangle one's own ideal images from what the artists envisioned. When the Mountain Goats left the lo-fi era for the 4AD era, they picked up a slew of fans but left a few at the onramp wondering what happened to the songwriter who they'd associated with their own militantly lo-fi ethos. The Goats were of course a curious example in that they eventually picked back up many of those fans, but were also notable in that the tidal shift in their music was one of style and not one of quality. The Black Kids could hardly blame the failures of Ahhhs on a broken boombox: Partie Traumatic sounds remarkably similar apart from brighter synthesizers, better vocal tracking, a bevy of overdubs, and a generally more busy soundscape.

Perhaps these things are a matter of taste, but compare - if you can - the first three seconds of the two versions of "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You." In those three seconds, you have the beginnings of all the problems with the sound of this album. For all the band's failures, restraint was hardly one of them but it only worsened in the studio. The original version could admittedly be recorded more cleanly, but its reverb drenched solo guitar succinctly declares the hook and allows plenty of space into which the band can drop. The new one brightens the tone almost to distraction and leads off by scratching the rhythm before a second, almost identical sounding, guitar comes in to clutter up the track even more. The rest of the track feels like a clinical exercise. The backing vocals are sometimes separated out so far that the shouts seem like they're coming from a different room and the hyperactive bassline from the original still hasn't quite found a groove.

Partie Traumatic isn't all bad, and it certainly deserves more consideration than Pitchfork saw fit to give it. At its best, it's an incredibly accessible dance record that has all the inviting post-punk cues that made them the darlings of the blogosphere in the first place. The musicianship is consistently stronger, and the lead vocals are much stronger than before even if the weakness of the backup vocals (more the parts than the voices) is made awkwardly obvious by the brighter production.

Despite its high points, The Black Kids had little hope of recapturing our imaginations with this album. Even were it to have equalled Wizard of Ahhhs, we would have been left wanting because so much of what we loved in it was unrealized potential. To see them here - a record deal, a record - and but no closer to finding the next gear, is perhaps the biggest disappointment in listening to the album.

Still, we should probably be honest with ourselves: where could they have gone? We wanted to believe that their irresistibility would translate into something more and that they could be more than the sum of their influences. But what cause did we have? When Marissa Cooper got in the Cohen's Land Rover to drive down to Tijuana for the weekend on the heels of all her chaos, did we really expect anything else but for her to end up drinking alone in a sketchy bar before overdosing on pills? Nine times out of ten the dancey 80's revival band will remain just that, and just as frequently the poor little rich girl will mix Cuervo and codeine. When the surprises happen, they're brilliant. A glimmer of redemption for Marissa, Turn on the Bright Lights for the hopeful.

1 comment:

Brendan K. said...

For those interested, I challenged D to reconcile his initial writing about the Black Kids with the relative quality of their debut full length, and he rose to meet it indeed.

The conclusions about potential and promise you come to I think are spot on, and it makes me wonder why we evaluate music on such a subjective scale. Once a band exhausts its coolness capital, they never get it back. At best, all they can hope for is some future project to be embraced ironically for kitsch. We don't judge a painter by their early works, or a filmmaker by his first film. If a kid gets drafted by the bigs at 17 and he's terrible for 5 years in the minors, he may well play a lot of great years in the majors. Why can't Black Kids come right back and make Pitchfork eat the review? because Pitchfork is Pitchfork and they have already crippled Black Kids "coolness" appeal. The polarity is striking, and usually is only a one-way flow.