[11 December 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There are a lot of elements to the Shocking Pinks’ sound that make them an ideal band for a label like DFA. Much like the rest of the label’s roster, the New Zealand band—comprised only of sole member Nick Harte—uses driving beats to push songs along. There’s also a dance feel to this music, with enough bass drum and synth lines to get your legs twitching, and plenty of fuzzy production to give the recordings an air of nostalgia.
But, from there, the Shocking Pinks break off. This, their debut for DFA, is culled from two previous albums—Mathematical Warfare and Infinity Land—Harte released in New Zealand in 2004. And on this highlight reel it becomes clear that Harte is more interested in guitar pop than much of the DFA crew. Songs like “This Aching Deal” and “End of the World” could be dance numbers, but the deep fuzz of guitar make them something far muddier, something closer to ‘80s fuzz-pop than house music. Even when the songs become clearer dance tracks, like on “Yes! No!”, the bass line is low and sliding and sinister, and Harte stays out front, never letting the beat take over, near-whispering his tales of heartache.
Harte never shies away from that pain either, and this is perhaps the biggest break from other DFA acts. Shocking Pinks is surprisingly, and convincingly, internal. Harte is mining some of his own pain here to give us songs that can be bittersweet or downright self-destructive. “How Am I Not Myself?”, perhaps the best song here, is murky acoustic guitar-pop, and Harte sings to a girl that he’d rather “be your retard than be your motherfucking dad”. It’s the most overt example of frustration and longing on the record. When he continues from here, singing, “telling you what to do”, the control in it is alarming, but the way he repeats the line and drags it out shows he knows that having that sort of power probably wouldn’t change anything. It would be an exercise in futility.
The album comes to this moment often, where longing and unrequited love butt up against the reality that, not only will the two people in the song never end up together, but that it is probably for the best. But still, Harte sings on about missing and obsessing, and the dirty lo-fi production provides the perfect palate for his dark night of the soul numbers. From the dream-fuzz, Elevator to Hell rock of standout “Emily” to the shoegaze buzz of “Second Hand Girl”, the songs recall a sound decades old, but Harte makes it his own. He plays every instrument here, as if to drive home the solitary nature of the record, and he makes Shocking Pinks a model of precision and devotion. Like he would have come up with this sound if it hadn’t existed already. Harte isn’t performing revivalism here, but instead borrowing elements from his favorite predecessors and combining them to make the most perfectly tortured conduit for his songs.
When he closes with Arthur Russell’s “You Can Make Me Feel Bad”, he has at least halfway shrugged off his pining, or rather he has twisted it into something he’ll survive on. Singing the title line over and over again, it doesn’t sound like an accusation, or a challenge. Instead, it sounds like a request. Go ahead, Harte seems to be saying, make me feel bad and see what I do with it. With Shocking Pinks, Harte has done quite a bit.