[27 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If bands have been hiding behind fidelity in the past few years, give Times New Viking points for committing to a disguise. The thick scuzz of the band’s records roars where other basement bands merely yelp. If other lo-fi bands deal in gauzy layers, Times New Viking burns through steel wool. These unrelentingly loud records have been an exercise in questioning our expectations when we approach rock music. They gave us the immediate noise, the blood-churning fury of it, but the melodies and guitar lines and vocals were all obscured, meshed together in a brutal wall of sound that never seemed to let up. The band hid behind that wall, shouting and playing as loud as it could, and we stood on the other side and went deaf listening.
Dancer Equired, though, is bound to feel like a new chapter in the band’s history. In some ways it is, since they went into a studio here and produced a record of pop songs that are, at least, recognizable as such. You can make out the words and the riffs, you can make sense of structure—these are songs you can memorize, even sing along to. On this album, Times New Viking is letting us see the man behind the curtain. But make no mistake: their Emerald City is still a rickety one. The boards are curled and rotten, the rafters groan, the structure as a whole rattles with every guitar strum, every word sung, every drum hit.
So once again we’ve got what we expect butting up against what we don’t. Despite making this in a studio, the record hardly sounds polished. Rather, those thick planks of noise from, say, Rip It Off, have been busted into brittle splinters. The band seems to know what it’s leaving behind, too, on opener “It’s a Culture”. The end of the chorus on the jangly power-pop tune starts with them looking at “what we are becoming”, which then leads them in the second chorus to “something worth exploring” and finally “something worth ignoring”. Intentionally or not, the song points to the boom and bust that accompanies modern independent music’s reliance on trends. The lo-fi movement—long past its prime even if still fruitful—and all its hiding behind hiss seems to be exactly what they want to leave behind. Mostly, anyway, and this first song is a tongue-in-cheek nod to that before they buzz through the next 13 tracks.
As it turns out, the band behind all that noise is a tuneful and unpredictable one. They’re capable of crafting moody, resonant pop songs like the cascading “No Room to Live” or the noodly wandering of “California Roll”. “‘Downtown Eastern Bloc” churns on a tense riff, but even as the echoing guitars swell, the initial minor-chord hush resonates underneath. The band loses none of its lean energy on these songs, but does prove that it can shift tempo and tone at the drop of a hat. Vocalists Beth Murphy and Adam Elliott help quite a bit with both, since both can bleat like garage-rock yellers, but they can also nail down subtle pitches. They may not sing in tune, per se, but they use their ragged vocals to their advantage, crafting an off-kilter range—not to mention a solid back and forth—over the whole record. In between them, guitarist Jared Phillip seems to mine every vein of rock guitar sound, tapping into punk fury and art-rock angles with the same effortless speed.
Even with all that new mood, the band hasn’t forgotten about rock and roll. “Even Falling in Love” wraps reverb-drenched vocals in clean guitar lines for a direct punch. “Try Harder” pushes forward at a snarling chug, while “Fuck Her Tears” contrasts Murphy’s sweetly combative pleas with playful keyboard riffs. The song is also the band at their fastest and most incendiary, and it makes for probably their best song since “Martin Luther King Day”. Late album standout “Somebody’s Slave” marries the mood of their pop leanings with subtle rock heft, and Murphy and Elliott sing together in a busted harmony that captures the song’s stubborn melancholy beautifully.
Dancer Equired is, in essence, just a new kind of surprise from Times New Viking. In place of the blunt force shock of volume, now we get little tangential flourishes (the twangy opening to “Try Harder”) or new psych-pop fog (“Want to Exist”) or even fuzzy acoustic lullaby (closer “No Good”). As long as they’ve been on the radar, these guys have been rightfully praised as sonic innovators, and as a result lauded maybe more for their direction than anything else. This record, though, is all about the execution. A brisk, risky, and rewarding set of pop songs with a flair for accents and a sneering edge, it does everything a pop record should with a unique power that only this trio can create. For all the praise heaped on Times New Viking, Dancer Equired is the band’s first truly great record. As it turns out, the guy behind the curtain is still the wizard.