If you hail the Brooklyn-based quartet Black Taxi down, you might find yourself not going to your particular destination in the most expedient fashion possible, if you base their second full-length album We Don’t Know Any Better as a guide. Instead, you’ll find yourself being toured around all the salient points of interest in the annals of indie rock and ‘80s retro culture instead. You might be annoyed and consider this a distraction – you paid for the cab fare and want something directional and cohesive. Or, you might have time to kill and don’t mind putting your feet up on the back seat and let the driver take you for a ride. You can approach We Don’t Know Any Better in both those ways. You’ll either be let down by the lack of consistency, or you might find yourself surprised at some of the sonic twists and turns that the album takes you on.
The band itself has been generating a fair amount of buzz in the indie underground, having sold out clubs in their hometown and various points usually on the American East Coast. What’s more striking, however, is the fact that the group’s multi-directional quality can be pegged to the individual members’ individual influences: frontman Ezra Huleatt studied jazz, guitarist Bill Mayo was an R&B/hip-hop session musician, bassist Krisana Soponpong was an ‘80s synth-pop revivalist, and drummer Jason Holmes was an orchestral and theatre percussionist. You can feel bits and pieces of all of these varied backgrounds in the ether of Black Taxi’s music, though if you had to peg it down to one or two things, the band is essentially the culmination of 21st century indie pop (the surf rock guitar twang of the Walkmen is evident, as well as a Strokes-like flair for the clubby) and a throwback to early ‘80s pop, though you would be hard pressed to name just a band or two that Black Taxi has been influenced by from that end of the fence, as their songwriting is a little more on the generic side, which isn’t a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. If you like that sort of thing.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about We Don’t Know Any Better is that its parts are usually greater than the sum. Most interesting is following Huleatt’s squiggly keyboard lines into ray-gun stun territory. On the title track, they brood ominously. On “We’ll Take Another”, a piano line stutters against the jangly chime of the guitar in ways that recall Spoon. On “Vultures” they weave a delectable line of quickly played notes in the solo. To go one step further, the thing with We Don’t Know Any Better, there are parts of songs that gel – most notably in the choruses – and parts that seem like they’ve had a UPC slapped on them. That might make you think that We Don’t Know Any Better is a widely uneven ride, and that would be partially true, but there are moments where the band hits it out of the park. The best and most notable track comes five cuts deep with “Friend”, which is an almost Billy Joel-esque slice of ‘70s AM rock with a chorus that almost feels Joe Jackson-esque. Almost. It’s hard to put a finger on it, even though it’s an affectionately groovy song that has one reaching for the controls of the time machine. Also of note is the title track, which has a catchy, dark and retro-futuristic hook. “Politics” is bolstered by the appearance of pixieish background female vocals during the chorus. And then there’s a real curveball in the mix with “Holding on to Nothing”, a plaintive acoustic guitar ballad that will have you fumbling for your Bic lighter – though it does seem a little odd appearing here amongst the bouncy pop tunes. There’s the journey and not the destination factor rearing its head again.
Overall, there are dull stretches on We Don’t Know Any Better, when the taxicab negotiates its way through drab neighbourhoods of old brownstones. And, to be honest, being an album that is destined to be played on nostalgic themed nights in the club, the lyrics are rather meh – the point being making people shake their booty, as opposed to make them reflect on the state of the universe at large. (Sample lyric: “Who needs colour when grey has so many shades? / I’m in love with you in so many ways.” Roses are red, violets are blue, the lyrics are nothing to write home about, and I’ll bet that you probably won’t care too much, too.) However, We Don’t Know Any Better is all about the ride and its stylistic detours, and on that front it can be rather fulfilling as you don’t know where things are going to go next. Black Taxi does have its homework ahead of it. The hooks could be more hooky in places, which is probably a result of the fact that stretches of the album were written in the studio based around a fragment of an idea, rather than a full bodied, deftly rehearsed tune that actually existed in a non-rudimentary form. Still, for all of its warts, I found myself tuning in a bit more than I tuned out. There’s nothing truly horrible to be found here, only the occasionally mundane – and that’s notwithstanding the fact that a few of these songs actually sparkle. Black Taxi, as a band, may still be a work in progress, but if you’re the type of listener that doesn’t mind getting lost on city streets the odd time here and there, despite the fact it might set you back some extra coin, We Don’t Know Any Better is remarkably journeyman-like in its rendering and provoking in its grasp to arrive at something that could be described as a signature sound. A few more years of touring around with the meter running, and Black Taxi might be a band worth whistling for if you encounter it on a busy city street.
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