“Take me to the dancefloor, show me it’s OK to dance,” sings Red Monkey’s bassist, Rachel Holborow, on “The Jazz Step Forwards (Shake It Down).” Normally I would consider this to be an encouraging sign for a band whose herky-jerky rhythms and radical politics have had more in common with Dog Faced Hermans than with “Who Let the Dogs Out.” I’m all for convincing the fans of indie-rock, post-rock, eunuch-rock, Asperger’s Syndrome-rock, or whatever that they don’t need to feel a puritanical superiority to the plebs who dig catchy melodies and beats. Laugh, dance, enjoy yourself, then start your revolution.
But Red Monkey still steer closer to Fugazi, the Ex, the Fall, or early Gang of Four than to anyone on-the-one. They may ask you to take them to a dancefloor, but soon vocalists Pete Dale and Rachel are using phrases like “culture bring me morality,” avoiding rhymes except when they end three consecutive lines with “me,” and noting that “the revolution is like a love song” (although this is not a love song) before they close their slow and decidedly unfunky dance number with a hushed, dirgelike repetition of “shake it down” that briefly flares in what seems almost like a burst of anger before fading away. All they need are some halfhearted sexual innuendos and a fake James Brown howl to make the joke complete.
Not only do these British leftists spout about “pinnacle of alienation” and “physical articulation of an emotion,” but they sound awfully earnest about it. Earnestness is often a fatal weakness in rock music, but with Rachel and Pete, you get the idea this is how they normally talk. Maybe it is. These are precisely the type of people who’d check out the local used-book store and argue politics over curry before a gig. So the way “Essential Nutrients” melds Poly Styrene’s critique of consumerism with Lesley Woods’s feminist food fetish seems less like an homage to Red Monkey’s forebears than a reflection of their own zine-infested worldview, and the sarcasm that creeps into songs such as “Not Certain, Positive” doesn’t detract from the sincerity of their radical positivity. Red Monkey are one of those bands that really do mean it, maan, even though they don’t always make clear what “it” is, since their lyrics tend more toward the personal-is-political than the discernibly topical.
And fortunately, this isn’t one of those bands that insist on constantly reminding you of their earnestness. However hectoring their stance may seem in theory, they’re quite engaging in the flesh; they don’t preach or lecture, and they sound like they’re enjoying themselves onstage. When I saw them in Philadelphia, their set was fierce, energetic, and even . . . well, fun. Unfortunately, they haven’t managed to convey the excitement of their live performances on record, so the music on Gunpowder, Treason and Plot sometimes seems as subtle as English food. It still sounds pretty good—it even feels relaxed and intimate at times, despite the band’s fondness for monotone vocals and unconventional time signatures—but it lacks the punch you might expect from an album whose title refers to a failed 17th-century conspiracy to blow up Parliament. It’s closer to a candlelit dinner than a 36-barrel explosion. (The Gunpowder Plot is commemorated in the old nursery rhyme: “Remember, remember the fifth of November/Gunpowder, treason, and plot/I see no reason why gunpowder treason/Should ever be forgot.”)
Erase Errata, who also performed at the aforementioned gig, fare somewhat better at translating the enthusiasm of their live shows to record on their full-length debut. More playful than raunchy, the group draws on a smorgasbord of art-punk history (think the Scissor Girls, 8 Eyed Spy, God Is My Co-Pilot, and, of course, Dog Faced Hermans) to create their own brand of spazz rock. Abrupt tempo changes and sudden outbursts of noise free their audience to contort themselves without worrying about each other’s movements. Their idea of dance music is nervous and jittery instead of sensual or athletic; sometimes it even sounds like Red Monkey after too much coffee. It’s the kind of sound that critics love to call “angular” and “off-kilter,” which basically means that the band doesn’t play the same riff for the entire album.
Guitarist Sara, singer and trumpeter Jenny, drummer Bianca, and bassist Ellie understand the value of brevity. The album’s longest song, “Marathon,” doesn’t quite make the three-minute mark, and the shortest, “One Minute,” is even more concise than its title suggests. The band sounds restless, ready to shift gears at the first opportunity.
The lyrics are as spare as the music is efficient. They address some of the same issues that concern Red Monkey—capitalism, alienation, yadda yadda yadda—but the songs seem less pious and more absurdist. Sometimes singing, sometimes screeching, and sometimes just talking, Jenny’s vocals are performance pieces in which she acts out characters ranging from the ADD kid in “Billy Mummy” to the pantyhose-wearing guy in “High Society.” Jenny, whose epiglottal fluctuations are somewhat reminiscent of Lora Logic, can hook a song around the affected pronunciation of a word or phrase, such as “I get tongue tiiiiied” or “You will dis-ap-pear!” This approach may seem somewhat gimmicky, but it fits perfectly with the band’s sorta dancey new-wave zigzag, and the words are less effective in the few instances when they appear (perhaps misleadingly) to be straightforward and sincere. When Erase Errata argue on the album’s title track that other animals are more evolved than humans because “our evolution led to technology,” I’m tempted to ask how the band would sound without microphones or instruments. But overstatement is par for the art-punk course.
Erase Errata play North Six in Williamsburg September 16.