Taking in a Bootblacks gig before writing this review was a real blessing; I may have written them off completely otherwise. Although the Brooklyn-based band performs monthly on average in New York, they have found a brethren among attendees of cold wave club night Wierd, and have a considerable following in Germany. Europeans who manage to catch the quartet on their upcoming tour of Italy and Germany should count themselves lucky, then. An excellent light show and Alli Pheteplace’s jagged guitar playing bring a menace the songs strive for, but fall short of, on the band’s self-titled debut.
Album opener “The Flood” lays out the band’s assets and flaws. Songs never overstay their welcome; most come with strong, high energy choruses; and Pheteplace’s backing vocals and guitar—which will make you believe Rowland S Howard is alive and well and living in Brooklyn—add a much-needed coolness to the proceedings. Most of the problems, then, lie in singer/synth player Ryan “Panther” Macdonald’s poseur vocals and plain bad lyrics. Pretty much every time Macdonald tries to sound deviant or evil-cool—which is plenty—he comes off as trying much too hard. This is most apparent in his Simon Bonney impersonation on “Charlatan” and the appalling lyrics, “My kiss is violence / and my touch is a gun.” The yelps of “punish me!” on “Unfortunate Rose” make you yearn for some modesty, or at least for Macdonald to find his own voice.
Bootblacks has a few genuinely great songs, most notably“The Things We Did”, which channels Dave Gahan and old-school Depeche Mode more than it does Aussie post-punkers like the Birthday Party or Crime and the City Solution. “The Things We Did” and the two songs which follow it—”Save Me Maria” and “Empire”—serve as the album’s strongest portion. They exude enough angular rollicking and rolling to incite a darkwave dance-along in those so inclined. As long as the music is this good, the direness of Macdonald’s lyrical abilities stays in the background, where it belongs. Having additional reference points in such No Wavers as James Chance and the Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks is a nice respite from the current arsenal of bands who stop at Sonic Youth.
However, Bootblacks has plenty of lulls. “Charlatan” is the perfect tuning out point and the primary thing differentiating the three remaining songs is the trumpet scales (again, courtesy of Pheteplace) on “Machina”. How many bands have a song called “Vanities”? The inclusion of a song of that name on here verifies it’s time to retire it as a song title. It is far too soon to call for a New York No Wave revival and hail Bootblacks as its figureheads, but it would be nice, in time, if Bootblacks were able to marry the slightly poppier moments of Bootblacks with a new no wave vision. If not, then the least we can hope for is that Pheteplace makes showing up almost every other guitarist in Brooklyn a full-time job.