The Concretes WYWH

[Friendly Fire; 2010]

Styles: indie pop, disco, Starbucks rock
Others: Belle and Sebastian, The Aislers Set, Camera Obscura, White Hinterland

The Concretes are the picture of a Band Whose Star Has Fallen. Back in 2003, their self-titled debut LP was celebrated for its stylish slices of pop swathed in early Velvet Underground haze. As subsequent albums revealed a more polished side to the band, however, this enthusiasm began to cool in some circles. So was this evidence of a reactionary attitude on behalf of the music press? Were people holding a grudge against the band for refusing to make the album that everyone loved all over again? Or maybe this was one of those embarrassing morning-after moments that critics experience occasionally, when everyone in the media seems to fall madly in love with a fledgling act for the space of a record, only to wake up shortly thereafter with a pounding hangover and the dawning realization that this group that they’ve championed is actually pretty ordinary.

Personally, I think it all boils down to the fact that their music just sounded better with a light dusting of distortion. For as liberally as we critics throw around the term “pop perfection” when describing indie bands with an ear for catchy melodies (myself included), pop music that’s “perfect” is usually pretty boring. Oh, sure, it can be done right; just look at bands like Office, who regularly pack layers and layers of sound into brilliant, four-minute pop-rock masterpieces. More often, though, “perfect” pop smacks of the kind of market-tested, focus-grouped dreck churned out under the name of whatever vat-grown Disney-pop starlet Clear Channel wants us to care about. And that’s why most of the time we prefer our pop to come a little damaged. Give me a killer hook, but bury it in guitar scuzz. Find me three flawless chords, but play them on a busted amp. Write me an unforgettable verse, but sing it out of tune. Save pop perfection for our future robot overlords; we want to see the cracks in that gorgeous veneer, to hear something that reminds us that, yes, this song was written and performed by flesh-and-blood human beings.

So really, it’s only natural that people began to lose interest in the band as they embraced slicker production values; the fact that they cleaned up the mix was enough to make The Concretes a less interesting band. And unfortunately, that’s the condition that we find them in with WYWH, their first new record in three years. In order to spice things up for their fourth full-length, the Swedish pop machine decided to make a disco record. Now, if you’re anything like me, that last sentence made your sphincter clench, conjuring images of Belle and Sebastian wedding ABBA in some kind of unholy Satanic rite. It’s nowhere near that offensive, though. The sinuous bass lines and stripped-down, one-two drum beats that undergird these melodies sound contemporary enough to avoid the worst possible outcomes of this undertaking. In fact, some of these songs work surprisingly well. “My Ways” offers promise early on with its heavy electronic throb and wire-thin guitar intrusions. “Oh My Love” lumbers from verse to chorus, hurried along by a nimble keyboard figure, and builds to a satisfying resolution with some great vocal interplay. Best of all, though, is “What We’ve Become,” with its pulsing bass-beat and some Entertainment!-inspired guitar scratches that barge in on the verses at all the right moments. And while there’s no comforting fuzz here to bring us back to the early aughts, each of these tracks introduce enough complications into the melody to hold the listener’s attention.

The same can’t really be said for most of the rest of the album, though. Despite the curve-ball thrown in by the disco contrivance, what we end up with in WYWH is an album full of polished, pretty, but ultimately inconsequential pop songs. Tracks like “Good Evening” and “Crack in the Paint” are sllllooooooowwwww and begin the album with a sense of lethargy. A lot of the music’s trappings, like the pan flute synth that springs up in “All Day,” help to push these already precious songs into easy-listening territory. The absolute lowest point is the cloying “Sing for Me,” which would sound right at home sandwiched between Céline Dion and Enya on Delilah After Dark. But even that song has an advantage over a lot of the other offerings: at least it’s bad enough to be memorable.

A crisp, clear sound is great for bringing out hidden complexities in a song’s composition, but despite the largesse of The Concretes’ roster (Are there really seven people in this band? What the hell are they all doing?), there just doesn’t seem to be a ton going on here. After a while, all those subdued dance beats begin to run together, and the preponderance of mediocre material swallows up even the strongest tracks. This is yet another album destined to become background music in a trendy clothing boutique. Sadly, I have a feeling it’ll have more than one Concretes record there to keep it company.

Links: The Concretes - Friendly Fire

Most Read