Lest we forget that French popular music wasn’t always the epicentre of fashion cool, Tahiti 80, who have been fighting the Francophone fight since 1993, have returned with a fifth album. Their absence was short, and The Past, the Present, and the Possible follows last year’s Solitary Bizness EP, from which it extracts two tracks, “Solitary Bizness” and “Crack Up”. Unfortunately, based on this evidence, the band are likely to continue their time in the underprivileged suburbs of success. Indeed, having only really made a commercial and critical impact on 2002’s Wallpaper for the Soul, Tahiti 80 have again proved that they are capable of writing likeable pop music. They just can’t seem to make their music loveable.
The real result of these failures is that one gets the sense that, like its predecessors, The Past, the Present, and the Possible lacks the doses of conflict or tension that might make it a little more challenging. No doubt, toughness and tweeness are difficult to reconcile. However, at times (“Gate 33”, “Want Some?”), the band flirts with utter blandness. The harmonies are certainly lovely, as if they’re reciting the Teenage Fanclub code of conduct by heart, but some of these songs seem very easy to replace.
Sure, the album is full of interesting textures and soundclashes in miniature: synths bubble up over growling distorto-bass on “Defender”, and drumpad splashes and treated acoustics wish and wash elsewhere. Yes, it’s all very pleasant, but where’s the edge? Where’s the beef?
“Solitary Bizness” has a certain slow-burning urgency. It’s a slithering, sleek take on new wave, consolidating its keyboard stabs with a cooing harmony. However, it lacks a central vocal hook. This leaves it gawping blankly when it should be gunning out a mischievous glare. This potential is, though, made good on “Darlin’ (Adam and Eve Song)”. It has a great chorus, coming off like a parade prepared to follow a well-organised tour of Redd Kross’s Bubblegum Factory. It’s definitely smart and snappy. It’s also a little overripe, and the band knowingly throw just enough bitterness into the mix to give it a faintly fetid aftertaste. It’s probably the best thing on here: not quite a hall of fame-perfect pop song, but it’s an admirable attempt nonetheless.
The extended mix of “Crack Up” doubles the running time of the version found on Solitary Bizness. It clearly comes from the tradition of extended mixes made famous during disco fever, and the band here observes all the characteristics of that tradition. They add heaps of percussion to the mix, play at heart racing build-ups and cacophonic breakdowns. However, they change things up a bit by indulging in krautrock hypnosis and elements of acid house. Indeed, the ear doesn’t need too much musical training to notice shades of Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness” and the Chemical Brothers’ “Three Little Birdies Down Beats” in the song’s 303 squeals. By the halfway mark, it winds up sounding as if it could be dangerous, but, like the rest of the album, it’s too polite to really go off the rails.
“Crack Up” is a perfect example of Tahiti 80’s confusion. Unsure of whether they want to be tasteful, pandering to us with lounge pop gloss, or tastemakers eclectically combining synthetic sounds with the best of the pop tradition, there are times when Tahiti 80 sound too trite, too inoffensive. Worse, sometimes they sound a little too much like Tooth & Nail’s Mae for comfort: limp and cloying rather than smirking and kitsch; music for happy, healthy teens with shiny plastic teeth and gleaming scripted manners.
Worse still, rather than licking their lips at the prospect of pop parody, of fighting overproduced banality with overproduced banality, they are so earnest that it’s easy to doubt that they know that pastiche is just over the horizon. It’s almost certainly their swooning, but totally obvious Frenchness that just about saves them.