By Chaz Kangas
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It's the nature of the avant-garde to be somewhere just beyond our current understanding of cool and in the ether of uncool—rad, but still fairly confusing. Such is the manner of Gang Gang Dance's genius fifth album, Eye Contact. The Manhattan quintet's fantastically weird psychedelic dance sound has reverberated far beyond their own releases; their 2008 breakout, Saint Dymphna, has been reversioned by every art school band that's had the forethought to rip off something other than Animal Collective.
With Eye Contact, the band that brought the rainstick out of upscale-spa obscurity and into the underground has gone trash-picking through the unhip impossible. In their search for mislaid morsels, Gang Gang has returned with ideas that in other hands turned into some of the grossest parts of mid-'80s pop, proving the old adage that one man's soft-rock synth patch is another band's art-rock bludgeoning tool.
Throughout Eye Contact's 10 tracks, the band breaks out keyboard sounds so tinny, fake, and soulless, they could have been lifted from a karaoke disc. Pips and washes of astral chimes on "Chinese High" sound like the default factory settings on a cheap keyboard, dimmed in the mix, their prefab innocence becoming woozy and fardled. The guitar sound alone will instantly conjure garbled memories of heinous videos where light cuts through blinds and people dance while wearing pleated silk separates. It's as if Gang Gang have taken the staple sounds of Lite-FM hits and repurposed them for evil. This is likely the doing of principal member Brian DeGraw, who is known for holding interest in trends and ideas long past the point when popular interest in them has waned. Dude is notoriously down for U.K. grime years after the giddiness over Rinse FM subsided, and its unlikely influence shows up in the album's bulldozing sub-bass. For any other band, that move would be seen as gauche and behind-the-times instead of far ahead of them.
Synth's pop appeal resided, in part, in how it could expand a band's sound by mimicking horns, strings, harp, etc. But on Eye Control, the dissonance between what a sound is and what it is supposed to be is exalted. Anemic tooting and heavily phased twinkling blast through "Romance Layers," a languid honky-funk number, while stuttering steel drums jut against its breezy drift. The acuity of fakeness contrasts with the songs' mutable, circuitous forms, which seem utterly natural.
Eye Contact delights with its danceability and synthetic pleasure, but it's frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos who holds the jams together. Her voice is naturally high—it sometimes sounds eerily like that of Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar—and she's at her most powerful at the top of her register, which is somewhere between early Kate Bush squeak and post-helium-balloon-hit yelp. Bougatsos has the uncanny ability to sound wild and loose, but in control and commanding—just as she seems to be on the verge of convulsing into some hedonistic mayhem, she reins it in, giving the listener a signal to snap to attention. This is true even when she's repurposing children's lullabyes, as she does on the hiccuping banger "Mindkilla."
Eye Contact's glamorous synthpop-hippie racket will eventually be reworked, poorly, by a legion of stoned, enchanted newbies. But for now, it's all on Gang Gang, and even when they seem adrift in their jamming, the production values and sheer intensity of Eye Contact reveal that they are not fucking around in the slightest.