The Ting Tings are a noisy, exuberant and highly accomplished boy/girl band, at least so on their first CD release in 2008, We Started Nothing. That disc did, in fact, start something—to the tune of about two million sold. The title track is six-plus minutes—perhaps too long by a third—of mildly snarling and yet sweet vocals and ragged and repetitious one-note guitars. And the point is this: it’s a great song, though not even the disc’s best, and one that defines, until now, the essence of the Ting Tings—confident, hook-heavy, catchy, melodic, joyous, petty, pouty, none-too-serious, and repetitious in the best sense of pure pop and dance music. We Started Nothing works because it is kookily unpredictable, honest, melodic and high-energy, void of self-regard. And the few weaker songs do not over-shadow the better ones.
We Started Nothing is a great pop record.
Four years later, an eternity in popular music, and the Ting Tings (Katie White and Jules De Martino) have issued their sophomore effort, Sounds from Nowheresville). Or is it their true second release? Seems that record company executives thought the initial follow up was so good they’d already begun a significant promotion and even had their “hits” picked out, which, amazingly, didn’t sit so well with The Ting Tings. Who but the two parties knows the real story, but the end result is that the band scrapped at least most of that work and recorded another one. And Sounds from Nowheresville is what we have before us.
Perhaps the Tings should have taken a deep breath on this one and stayed with their original material because Sounds from Nowheresville is sluggish, self-conscious, and seemingly deliberately bad (note especially the reggae-ish “Soul Killing”, which is, along with “In Your Life”, an over-earnest mistake of a song). It’s as though the band made an album the record company wouldn’t like, defiantly; abandoned melody and hook, out of spite. To boot, on “Soul Killing” a squeaky chair (or something) annoys greatly, and why is it there at all?
The whole effort, a mere 33 minutes worth but seemingly longer, is disappointing, save one or two songs. Multiple spins just can’t save this one.
To punctuate the band’s disappointment with the record company, Katie White sings, on “Give It Back”, “This could have been perfection/but we had a better sense / …and so we started all again.” True integrity—is there any other kind?—is worth respect. But Sounds from Nowheresville seems more defiance for the sake of defiance rather than a principled artistic statement. Simply put, if it were the latter the music would be much stronger and more listenable than it is. And that’s a shame, because the Ting Tings are a better band, far better, than Sounds from Nowheresville suggests.
While Katie White is a highly expressive and an emphatic singer, her voice here is all shout and fury and (perhaps deliberately) off-putting. For the most part, she abandons melody altogether. On “Guggenheim” she begins with a spoken lyric which has to do with another girl breaking up her relationship with a boy who “was cooler than the boys in all my crazy dreams”. That, in turn, creates “all these crazy issues”, leaving White to scream, incomprehensibly, “This time I’m gonna get it right / I’m gonna paint my face like the Guggenheim,” although I’ve read the line quoted differently. And “Guggenheim” is one of the better songs on Sounds from Nowheresville.
The best Nowheresville has to offer is “Hit Me Down Sonny”, a band march of a song that offers up goofily incoherent lyrics but possess the energy and verve (White lays into this one perfectly, with a casual insouciance) of the best work from We Started Nothing: the title track, “Fruit Machine” and “Great DJ”.
Hang on to what the first disc has to offer and consider this a misstep. Now if the Ting Tings can do the same, their third disc (and let’s hope there is one) should be just fine.