[12 May 2008]
You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more generic bullshit band name than Theatre of Disco. The literal amalgamation of the outfit’s two Aussie talents, James Brennan, whose background is in theater, and Ollie Chang, whose background is in…yawn. Going on name alone, you might expect within you the ability to recite their self-titled album’s entire tracklisting from muscle memory alone. What’s that, you say? Self-titled? You mean they weren’t even creative enough to come up with a proper name for their first album?
Okay, so Theatre of Disco are not too hung up on words. In turn, not too many words have been written about them yet either. Believe it or not, though, their lack of basic lingual prowess actually works in their favor on their debut EP. In fact, Theatre of Disco only really transform into the embarrassment their name suggests when their rhythmically fragmented vocals are decrypted enough to form recognizable semantic particles from the English language.
Even then, the result is hypnotic. It’s as if words are forming from the abstract language of Chang’s mechanized phoneme cut-ups, like images emerging in psychedelic fractal patterns. Take, for example, the sea of echodroned esophageal cutlets at the beginning of “On the Train”, which fester and brew like an incoming signal of the Scissor Sisters being digitally deciphered by keyboards before exploding into strobing freeze-frames of fantastic Prince-style yelps and scrambled porn moans. The effect is a disorienting whirlwind. Trying to get a grasp on it is like trying to follow the hi hat in a drill n’ bass track. Brennan, the vocalist, hollers out James Brown as filtered through Venetian Snares as the production occasionally lets us hear an “Ow!”, a “Hey!” or a “Hallelujah”!
Chang is the wizard behind the Theatre’s curtain, handling all the musical duties and making sure the disco-pop elements are up to snuff. His only credit to date is a stint in the eclectic Australian chillout group Ubin, though he has made a fine career writing music for commercials (including the most surreal Fancy Feast commercial ever). Brennan, a former parole officer and stage director, has the mics and wields them with a wild flair and ferocity somewhere between Flight of the Conchords and Beck’s “Debra”, but nowhere even approaching sincerity.
Chang’s sounds are often analog bubblebaths of pretty arpeggiated bounce (opener “Go Fifi”), not unlike the warm colors felt throughout the work of Black Moth Super Rainbow, the Knife, or the Twelves, who coincidently just released their remix of this album’s “Yoa”. There are two departures from this style on the EP: the meandering and unfocused “Party at Plato’s” and “Oke”, a dreamy rock song with some stop-start hits and gauzy shoegaze guitars that would make Serena Maneesh jealous. Even here, though, the lyrics are unintelligible, perhaps again for our benefit.
For five of the album’s seven tracks, sung vocals get monosyllabically chopped and stylized into dominating melodic slices, leaving only the faintest dust trail of their original meanings. It’s true avant-pop, either post-literal or pre-verbal/infantile, depending on your interpretation. Hugo Ball by way of William S. Burroughs, with a bit of burlesque humor thrown into the mix.
However, it seems unlikely Chang and Brennan immersed themselves in poststructuralist theory before laying down choruses like, “Everybody on the train’s got herpes / They’ve got STDs and the Burpies”. Chang noted in one interview that their preferred aesthetic is “slapdash”, often using mistakes and, one assumes, misspeaks as the precipice for experimentation. It’s a good thing they do, because it may be possible that what’s lurking beneath the veneer of Theatre of Disco’s swell electro funk is no more than a series of insipid jokes.
The stream of consciousness ranting on “Donnie Disco” finds one male singer touting his motorbike skills and spurting the unwisely lucid line, “When I go to work / I say ‘Fuck you / I’m not a computer programmer / I’m just, like, a cool dude’.” Another female vocalist has a conversation with a date about monkeys and whales, leading her to conclude “Yah, I like environmental issues” in a pie-faced valley girl accent.
Theatre of Disco need not be admonished for trying to incorporate shtick into their grooves. Plenty of bands successfully merge humor with their sonic repertoire and are strengthened by it. When a song’s punchline doesn’t catch, though, all of its fun energy can instantly turn torpid, as is the case with “Donnie Disco”. Chang and Brennan already have enough enlivening moments present on Theatre of Disco to fall back on the cymbal crash and the laugh track.
“On the Train” and “Yoa,” in particular, cracked me up by showing, not telling. In these songs, the cut-ups are the yucks themselves. Those songs use the truncated canvas of micro-editing to pack an impressive punch of suggestive candor, such as the way in which Brennan seems to call everyone a motherfucker in “On the Train”, or rather a “muh-tha-uh-eh”. Or when he explains, and for a moment it makes total sense, that “Everyone’s all wooo-eee” in “Yoa”. To my ears, those howls are more risqué than anything 2 Live Crew could have dreamed up. And though Theatre of Disco’s particular brand of synthpop is comfortably distant from the five-year-dead electroclash movement, Theatre of Disco should be extra-cautious that they not devolve into another W.I.T. or Avenue D. What they have, gimmicky though it may be, is too good to let that happen.