Just when you thought it was safe to pull the plug on all those ‘80s electro-pop revivalists from the shallow end of the talent pool, along come Wave Machines. These mask-wearing Liverpudlians combine an angular post-punk sensibility with a shameless ear for the big tune and a dose of art-school mischief.
This band is so adept at unearthing lost pop hooks from the recesses of our collective ‘80s unconscious that they induce a kind of false memory syndrome, stalking you with songs so maddeningly familiar you feel you’ve known them half your life. Armed with vintage keyboards and chunky, singalong-a-hairdo tunes of the Cyndi Lauper/Thompson Twins variety, this record is pure, unabashed pop—the effervescent stuff that, as Jarvis Cocker once magnificently defined it, is sweet, fizzy, and makes you burp.
After the wistful opener, “You Say the Stupidest Things”, the debut single, “I Go I Go I Go”, puts it all on the table—clipped rhythm guitar, exhilarating shouty choruses, and a panoply of glitches, bleeps, and spring-loaded basslines. Ditto “The Line”, a song whose sole mission is to send abstract brightly coloured shapes jiggling around your cranium.
But rest assured, under all the cheesy disco lights, the Waves are sporting a smart New Wave haircut and a degree in something. The chugging, stripped-down riffs and tick-tock rythmns of the current single, “The Greatest Escape We Ever Made”, are pure Talking Heads, and indeed the Heads and their goofy Tom Tom Club offshoot are an influence that’s never very far away. Singer Tim Bruzon even has a nice line in terse, quirky couplets a la David Byrne: “I talk to you on telephones we made / from tin cans lying in the shade,” he sings in a voice marginally less emotive than coat hanger wire.
It’s on “Keep the Lights On” that these elements are distilled to something close to genius. A huge, dark bassline throbs under shivers of spectral synth as Bruzon intones, “Hold your fingers up to the sun / trace the bones, feel the blood run”. Then his dry, deadpan vocals morph into a falsetto worthy of Jake Shears, held aloft by cut-and-paste smatterings of dreamy dance pop stolen from some mythical early Madonna B-side.
Then just when you think you’ve got the measure of them, Wave Machines become another band entirely. “Punk Spirit” is an angsty, self-recriminating guitar anthem that takes them closer to Elbow or Editors territory, and by the closing chorus Bruzon sounds for all the world like Tom Verlaine.
At times their charm runs out—“I Joined a Union” is forgettable if not downright irritating, while “Carry Me Back to My Home” indulges a fondness for multilayered guitar arcs, but is a tad tepid. Finally drummer Vidar Norheim takes over the hushed vocal duties for the downbeat closer, “Dead Houses”, which bleeps out of existence rather pleasingly in a Postal Service/Junior Boys kind of way.
Some will doubtless peg Wave Machines as zeitgeist-chasing tryhards, and at times it does all feel a little calculated. But they win you over with their sheer inventiveness, their laptop-licking love of creating sounds for their own sake, and do it with such gusto and élan that, most of the time at least, they get away with it.
You won’t be listening to this album a year from now. Like most highly stimulating consumables, you’ll most likely gorge on it ‘til you’re sick and wake up never wanting one again. But for a few marvellous summer weeks these songs will stick to your brainpan like egg white.
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