NewVillager talk a great deal about the “NewVillager mythology,” which, according to them, is “a vocabulary of ideas…a lens for looking at the world and art…a way to look at the world in a cohesive, consistent way.” They say that the band’s music serves as a vehicle to make this mythology more graspable (read: less off-putting) and to capture what fascinates them, which, apparently, is the way things change from one state to another. For their recent “Temporary Culture” project at Los Angeles’s Human Resources Gallery, the band spent 10 days living and eating inside a mini-town of their own construction within the gallery made up of 10 rooms that represented each song off of their self-titled debut album, released on IAMSOUND, as well as the 10 stages of the NewVillager mythology. It’s obvious that the band is quite enamored of the mystique afforded by such a worldview, as evidenced by their enthusiastic relaying of their debut’s recording process — the album was recorded in an abandoned mansion, a cabin neighboring a meth house, and a beach house near a “haunted castle.” Now, I’m still uncertain as to what the NewVillager mythology actually is, but that’s fine; at the very least, I can get behind the mentality under which this bi-coastal duo, hailing from San Francisco and New York, operates. They seem to be driven by a relentless curiosity, a constant state of wide-eyed wonder.
Thing is, NewVillager, on its own, doesn’t live up to the expectations set out by the band’s lofty ambitions. At best, it captures the same endearing joy of their incomplete ideas and live installations; at worst, these songs sound like gratingly cheery campfire songs. Remove the element of tangible physicality and eye-popping colors that make the band’s intentions so winning and you’re left with some pleasant and resolutely unremarkable psychedelic pop. NewVillager isn’t a bad album, per se; it’s a better-than-most attempt at fusing Sung Tongs’ stoned-in-the-woods vibe with a more immediate — that is, danceable — rhythmic sense. “Rich Doors,” the band’s 2009 debut single, makes good on this combination’s promise, provoking giddy movement with its exuberant toms and irresistible hook. It also introduces some subtle electronic touches, which take center stage on “Black Rain,” an intoxicating mixture of deep, bassy electro-pop and more traditional indie pop gestures. But these two songs are the exception, not the rule, and other attempts at the formula, such as opener “Cocoon House,” fall flat, failing to conjure up any real energy; the album’s second proper single, “Shot Big Horixon,” is painfully limp, demanding an overcompensating performance from vocalist Ben Bromley.
Most of all, these tracks simply sound unfinished, like empty paint-by-numbers templates, blueprints for better, more fulfilling songs. Each one has its rewarding moments — the interlocking guitar and vocal lines of “Upholder,” the tambourine-and-foot-stomp shuffle and pizzicato strings of “Say the Code” — but too often, these good ideas fail to gel into anything memorable. It doesn’t help that the band is rarely singing anything worth mentioning; “Say the Code” maims an otherwise enjoyable melody by repeating “Don’t look at the sun, at the sun” ad nauseam. The album’s middle stretch is particularly forgettable, a collection of pleasant sounds and virtually no substantial ones. Only with the arrival of “Lighthouse” do we see the band trying on some new clothes (much as they do in the song’s superb video), adopting a more thoughtful tone. It’s a welcome change and a testament to the powers of sonic context. In its newly shimmering surroundings, a line like “Keep it up, don’t stop/ Don’t lose your place” has genuine energy, despite its undeniable cheesiness; similarly, Bromley’s exhortation that “the time to dream is almost over” feels surprisingly powerful. It’s hardly a profound statement, but the fact that Bromley’s delivery is still filled with unbridled joy lends a twinge of irony to the line’s palpable urgency.
If NewVillager is a considerable disappointment, it’s only because these flashes of excellence exist in the first place, highlighting how comparatively weak the record’s other songs are. Which really is a pity, since these guys are about as likable as they come, possessing self-assurance and devil-may-care recklessness in equal measure. Certainly, the concept of a band making highly accessible music in order to express what seems to be a rather esoteric collection of ideas is nothing short of thrilling; it would finally remove the grossly unfair notion that artists willing to analyze their work consciously simply have their heads too far up their asses. “Rich Doors” and “Lighthouse” are good enough to suggest that NewVillager have the potential to expertly toe the line between unkempt ambition and childlike fascination, and bridge this unfortunately large gap between big ideas and big audiences in the process. They just aren’t quite there yet.