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Black Marble

A Different Arrangement

(Hardly Art; US: 9 Oct 2012; UK: 5 Nov 2012)

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1986

Wow, the ‘80s sure seem far away, don’t they? Big hair, tight leggings, Walkmans, Northern Exposure, Flashdance. The Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan, and the US was giving money to the Taliban to fight them. No cell phones, no text messaging, no home computers or email, no flatscreen TVs. People would make appointments to meet up later in the week and then actually, y’know, meet, without calling two hundred times to confirm or postpone or cancel. It was a different time. And the music? Well, mostly the music sucked.


Black Marble is a band that might take a different view on that last subject. A Different Arrangement, the Brooklyn duo’s debut full-length, doesn’t so much mimic the electro-pop sounds of the 1980s as it does reincarnate them. This is electro-pop through and through, the meat of its songs made up of pulsing synth layers and blippy-blurpy beats. Peppy basslines help propel things along, and a bit of guitar can be made out here and there, but it’s the keyboards that do the bulk of the heavy lifting here. That, and Chris Stewart’s baritone take on Robert Smith’s mopey vocal stylings, which tend to fall somewhere between a moan and a drone.


“Cruel Summer” kicks things off and lays out the template, but it’s follow-up tune “MSQ No Extra” that injects a bit of verve into the proceedings, notwithstanding its oblique title. (Is that a typo? “MSG No Extra” would make more sense.) After that, we’re pretty much in full-on nostalgia territory—those of us who were there in the first pace—as the band manages to evoke everyone from Joy Division to OMD to Depeche Mode without actually sounding like they’re copying anyone in particular.


The band varies tempos and moods, wending from downtempo wistfulness (“A Great Design”) to relatively bouncy numbers like “UK”. This last is an engaging enough tune, with chiming synths and guitar floating over the rock-steady, if somewhat repetitive, electro-beat. As with much of this genre of music, though, the emotional range feels somewhat stifled. No tune ever really rips loose, and there’s a kind of icy reserve throughout the album. It’s easy to suspect that this is because many of the sounds are being made by programmed machines and not by actual human beings pounding away on goatskins and strings, but who knows. Again, the vocals fall into a consistent groove that reinforces this somewhat bloodless remove.


Song length adds to these feelings of sameness. Eight of the eleven tracks here fall between 2:48 and 3:44, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are formulaic, but when playing the album through, there are certain predictable dips and valleys in the listening experience. Things warm up with a gurgle of keyboard or pitter-pat of percussion, a few layers are added on, some vocals are poured over the whole affair. Perhaps there is a bridge, a middle section of some sort—there are no solos—then a quick resolution or fade out. Repeat. Repeat again.


Fans of electro-pop may well find this listenable enough, though it brings little new to the table. For the rest of us, there isn’t much here that’s terribly compelling—and there’s a whole world of music out there worth exploring. Do we really need to go back to the ‘80s to find something worthwhile?

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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