CSS Donkey

[Sub Pop; 2008]

Styles: indie rock, electro pop
Others: Metric, The Ting-Tings, Le Tigre

Lovefoxxx. There’ll always be something about her voice. Just makes you want to leave everything behind and raise electro babies with her in São Paulo, whatever your sexual orientation may be. But while CSS’ German/Japanese/Heartthrob had something to prove on the band’s self-titled debut, she’s now settled into her reputation and has promptly ceased to bring the sexed up contempt and ferocity that got her where she is on their new album, Donkey.

The rest of CSS sound as tight and engaged as ever, rolling out flashbulb guitar stabs and too-cool-for-school bass lines. But these red carpets are designed specifically for Lovefoxxx to strut down, and she stumbles. The melodies rely too heavily on her vocals for direction, yet the cyclical and predictable lyrical patterns are tedious where they should surprise. Many of the tracks from CSS’ first major release had the gravitas to stand on their own, spontaneous and danceable. Here, there’s plenty of rollicking, straight-ahead indie rock, but without solid songwriting, there’s nowhere to apply the generated torque. It’s still vibrant and listenable, yet the more time you spend with the band, the further you see past the commotion and through the illusion.

But you could be fooled. Out of the gates, CSS give us a statement of purpose as filled with bravado and swagger as any of their work. The immediately insistent “Jager Joga” builds like an old U2 hit until Lovefoxxx swoops in, all exclamation points. “We came here to take you out/ Come with us we’ll make a toast” bounces over guitar pierces reminiscent of Silent Alarm. Next, the album’s single showcases a mastery of more classic, Pixies-pioneered song formula (“Rat Is Dead” = “Monkey Gone to Heaven” -- see, it works) that is absent and much missed on the rest of the effort. ‘Foxxx’s fierce growls will stay in your head for days, perhaps obscuring the fact that she’s tackling some of her most intimate subject matter.

That’s pretty much where the well runs dry. Songs that implore you to dance when there’s nothing to dance to, such as the Purple Rain buzzer-soaked “Let’s Reggae All Night,” come off as awkward. There’s plenty of Emily Haines-aping and recycled guitar tones, but no tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness, no dance-terror spasming. Instead there’s abominable electro ska (“I Fly”) and sappy, mumbled teenage poetry (“Believe Achieve”). And then there's “Left Behind,” which I'm hoping doesn't open the floodgates to alternative acts using T-Pain-style auto-tuning.

The shadow cast over a sophomore album can be immense, and no one’s demanding another iPod single. Instead, what's important is confirming that you haven't completely lost it, that you’ve still got the inspiration that made us listen in the first place -- Donkey, however, is in danger of making us forget.

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