Lately, while the thriving New York band and international subculture known as the Strokes have redesigned garage scruff into the audio emblem of exclusive cosmopolitan chic, five guitar/bass/drums guys from Kentucky seem to have taken it into their heads that Parisian house music is the new Journey. Their music is not especially re-imagined or internalized or popped-up, just centered on solid and streaming jams with the chopsy, faintly serious goal of transcendence. The ostensible conceit, if not novelty, throughout Le Funk, the debut of Louisville’s VHS or BETA, is that the acoustic vibes and limber moves of the album’s six songs are achieved manually—you know, everything played by the band, by hand, in real time. This is house music that’s performed rather than spun, phrased instead of sequenced, the result not of obscure samples or white labels but an actual working band; the rougher two concluding songs on the album, in fact, are live recordings. It’s as if the Strokes had studied the grooves of Studio 54, not 54 years of high-attitude dives.
Still, the music on Le Funk resists classification as one of those unlikely sightings of disco jambandicus—where Phish, say, occasionally play up a slightly metallic rhythmic edge, unleashing (many) repetitions of astringent percussive and guitar top-end, VHS or BETA on songs like “Heaven” and “Disco Paradise” reproduce with rock instrumentation the sharp accents and switched-on gaits of DJ tunes. “Disco Paradise” lays on lots of Vocoder riff (Troutmanesque) and vocal (“Do you want to disco?”) parts, and the top-notch “Solid Gold” locates lucidly a sweet melody, then keeps swirling it around, in the bemused way Daft Punk or other French dance-rockers might. For jamband bluebloods, there is way too much taste for pure construction here, not to mention a scarcity of smoke. And yet, VHS or BETA’s highly curious music, for all its killer know-how and glue, remains too something-or-the-other—too close-to-the-bone? too hand-held camera? hard to say—to qualify fully as DJ music. A strong guitar conversation, for example, jumps out of the groove and takes hold of “On & On.” But because the rhythm beneath it isn’t icy, the effect is far less magisterial than Underworld; because the guitars themselves don’t sound precision-plated, the vibe also is warmer than Rinôçérôse. Everything adds up to just one very big, very welcoming, astute yet friendly sonic gesture. Like (as their press release clarifies) “their favorite arena rockers,” Journey.
Which, if you think about it, is closer to logic than novelty. Exclusion, whether as a reaction against big-band and Sinatra or art-rock and Rod Stewart, has long existed as a driving force in the music of capable homegrown rockers, from John Fogerty to REM to Kurt Cobain to the Strokes, whose mid-sized new planet of moderately good engineering and beat-up jeans is unthinkable without the principle. But why should five guys from Kentucky whose shows are said to draw everyone from hipsters to grannies really care to conceive of themselves in terms of stylistic exclusion, even if they didn’t necessarily want to trade in their guitars for machines? Why should they lose a moment’s sleep over whether someone in New York or LA or Louisville thought that Journey’s legacy was radio crap instead of a conceptual model for doing something colorful and vibrant and arresting and well-played and communicative? This is what makes VHS or BETA more, right now, than a grassroots band who have released a winning debut of loose yet concise rock-house. This is a band that could go on and do something. Especially if, however they ratiocinate the guitars and the dancebeats, they don’t stop believin’.