Not to get all Seinfeld about it, but really, what’s the deal with “dance-punk”? Roughly since the average Midwest resident could lock in on “Mr. Brightside” during a game of radio roulette, any act with a Roland TB-303 supplanting their driving beats gets dragged into punk’s perpetually splintering lineage. At least veritable vet Marcus Lambkin has an apt gives-no-fuck name going for him. Longevity-wise, odds are against the Dublin native with a moniker like Shit Robot (to speak of punk’s noble children, what trajectory would R.E.M.‘s career have taken had that band stuck with Cans of Piss, Negro Eyes, or Slut Bank as a name?).
Unfortunately, that’s where the lion’s share of the fun stops on From the Cradle to the Rave, a dreadful chore of a debut which shares a label with Lambkin’s party pal James Murphy (the LCD Soundsystem frontman also makes a sneak vocal appearance). The asinine moniker (which sounds like it took one bowl of macaroni and cheese to think up) and equally cheeky album title (that’s two bowls) accurately represent a release dealing in dance music’s disproportionate genericism. Despite cameos from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and LCD compadre Nancy Whang, the DFA connection is the only thing that gives this release a fart’s worth of credibility. Otherwise, it’s the typical DJ aloofness. A name like Shit Robot wouldn’t imply pressing concerns with radio play, but it doesn’t set the bar incredibly high in terms of listener expectations, either. If Lambkin is as shrewd as Murphy is witty, this should be a ploy to win people over in the end.
Those hopes are dashed fairly quickly. The hammy synths in opening call to arms “Tuff Enuff” let a cringing newcomer know Marcus Lambkin treats the dance floor like a church altar where Father Knuckles once preached. Lambkin makes sure his voice is the first one heard on From the Cradle to the Rave, but at least he’s not deluded enough to think DJing is all about him. Vocally, the album doesn’t have quite the ensemble cast a DFA release should be able to pull off. Instead, the revolving door just heightens the aura of blurry pseudo-identity someone would get from making their name playing other people’s music.
Even the most distinctive set of pipes recalls those other people; on “Losing My Patience”, Taylor’s voice has a quivering Bryan Ferry-esque quality to it. Whang shines on in “Take ‘Em Up”, a rare moment of clarity which borrows from the Chicago house playbook before breaking down into Madonna’s idea of rap (it’s not exactly rip-rop-rippedy-do, but Talib Kweli it ain’t). The doe-eyed transcendental mood gets broken with a bit of cold reality, but it’s just more silly lyrical meandering you’d expect from Ryan Adams after his third cigarette.
“Now things are complicated / You’ve got bills to pay”, actual punk Ian Svenonious laments in the bad trip boomerang “Simple Things (Work It Out)”. “You’ve got to go to school / You’ve gotta work every day / Well…that’s hard”. The song shares the frankness of Murphy’s best work, but Svenonious overshares, as if the wrong buddy had the misfortune to ask how his day was. He then goes on an anti-technology rant—spitting the word “machines” like a slur—that hints at the origins of Lambkin’s nickname: these robots can make lives convenient, but they’re creating new problems of isolation.
There’s a whiff of salvation near the end that saves the rating up there from being an asterisk, with the last two tracks blowing away the meringue that came before it. The soulful proselytizer in “I Got a Feeling” knows that the feeling, not formula, is what turned house music into a community all those years ago. In spite of its relentlessly repetitive nature, or perhaps because of it, this is what dance music should be: energizing. Lambkin downshifts from there, as James Murphy’s vocal turns on “Triumph!!!” aren’t anything LCD Soundsystem fans need track down—he’s nearly swallowed whole in the background, chanting an unintelligible motto for a cult you’re not cool enough to be in on. As far as album closers go, however, Lambkin could have done much worse.
But a couple worthy songs does not a glorious debut make. On a front to back listen, you’ve got to wade through the waste before something remotely worthwhile turns up. But beneath the tired acid house retreads, there’s the feeling a stronger Shit Robot release currently boils within Marcus’ coiled nerves. His heart is in the right place—he just needs to get his robot and his shit together before hitting “record” next time so he can better articulate his message. You can’t get much more punk than that.