We’ve heard the death knell of prefab pop, haven’t we? Or so we think. The new good bands—better only because they have better influences—have won their scrappy place in the national press. And New York being the center of that fickle world, well, New York bands get more than their fair share of credit for this shift: Say hello (and then goodbye) to the locked-in sounds of the Moldy Peaches and the French Kicks. Not that any of this stuff is claiming the major labels’ promo budgets, but hey, that’s what the viral spread of indies and imprints is for. Still, New York acts like the Liars and the Mooney Suzuki attract young writers of pop-culture mags like flies on shit, so rock fans in Montana can read about them in the review section of Spin and wonder how to get their hands on the EPs.
But the hype is settling. Looking much past the haircuts and vintage amps and Stooges/Can/Sabbath evocations, we find only a handful of the acts in this renaissance are really decent. To be fair, New York rock bands haven’t necessarily asked for Great White Hope status; most of them are just going about their writing, playing, and recording while fans and critics line up to place bets. Radio 4, the Walkmen, and Secret Machines, to name three, have recently released records that, taken together, offer up an honest cross-section of what’s on local stages these days. Taken separately, they present very different acts on different grading curves, to hell with New York.
Gotham, Radio 4’s second full-length, starts convincingly enough: “Our Town” spears your forehead with a stiff index finger of all things Manchester, circa 1980. Far be it from me to accuse such a packed album of being so front-loaded, but the novelty peters out almost immediately. By the second and third tunes, the game is up. We get it: Gang of Radio 4. This is Radio 4 Clash. And so on. Each song, like the album, goes on a bit too long, and vocalist Anthony Roman doesn’t so much sing as bitch, bitch, bitch, all the way home, never achieving the grating satisfaction of, say, John Lydon. (The band is begging for such comparisons—their name even comes from a PiL song. These guys are set on sounding retro and Limey: VH-1 folk music, basically.) The near-constant background noises—guitar burps, keyboard squirts—don’t lend texture so much as remind one of a shrill child repeatedly interrupting a potentially interesting adult conversation. And while they’re at it, their percussion is borderline Haircut 100.
Nonetheless, there’s a heavy diligence here that can’t have been easy to record or arrange. Gotham is at best the sound of a band’s personal fervor, and a labor (or perhaps “labour”) of love; if your ears aren’t tired of it, especially now that so many bands in town are playing it (Ex-Models, Liars, etc.), they do this music well enough. The younger kids should enjoy the sound for the first time out, while new-wave nostalgiaheads can time travel. It’s hard to dismiss such passionate effort. Just do me a favor and switch off the stereo on your way out.
The Walkmen fare better on the originality front, though you could accuse them of being too studied, too aloof. But who could blame these guys for standoffishness after getting burned a few years ago—as half of Jonathan Fire*Eater—by premature media hype? The band’s debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, is gun-shy compared to their live-show arrogance. Onstage, this could be interpreted as genius in a town of showboat performers, and despite the posturing, the Walkmen are inventive, engaging players. But though Everyone doesn’t nail their concert energy, it’s nonetheless heavily marked by its stadium-anthem leanings and Hamilton Leithauser’s yearning, athletic vocals. Even little Thom Yorke could take a lesson in melodic earnestness from this guy, but the band’s decision to have much of the drumming sound like Larry Mullen Jr.’s (marching, marching) could be a serious mistake. It’s especially plodding on record; the Walkmen’s best songs are spare or lilting (“They’re Winning,” “We’ve Been Had”), not dragged down by 4/4 convention, and the album conjures U2 probably far more than it means to. But the Walkmen are young and gifted. They’ll more likely pull it out sooner than later.
Secret Machines’ self-titled EP (actually a two-year-old demo recorded before they moved to New York from Texas—they used it to shop around for club gigs) displays an even wider stage-versus-studio discrepancy. In fact, it’s as different from the live show as any recording I’ve ever heard. (Back a minute: Radio 4 sound about the same both ways.) Secret Machines is quiet, pleasant, a bit scrappy—unfolding with nary a jolt. Live, they borrow as much from Syd-era Pink Floyd as some Orwellian sci-fi recital; the hooky pop riffs and harmonies that occasionally punch through the darkness are the oxygen in a lovely vacuum, and the only connecting feature between the recording and live mediums. You couldn’t expect a new three-piece without a steady label to have the budget to re-create (or procreate) such an astounding freak show of bottomless throbbing and moody theatrics. Listen to the EP for a mellow afternoon layabout; to get your head screwed in the most peculiar and satisfying way, go to the show.
Ace Fu, acefu. com; Gern Blandsten, gernblandsten.com; Startime International, startimeintl.com. Radio 4 play Brownies May 31.