Thieves Like Us, a 1974 movie by Robert Altman, portrays a group of bank robbers lost in Mississippi and on the run after breaking out of a chain gang. It also tells of an ill-fated love story between the youngest, Bowie, and a gas-station owner’s daughter, Keechie. The film, though its tone and the time it depicts (the 1930s South) is entirely different, captures something of a young man’s desperation and obstinacy. These qualities form the axis of emotion that Thieves Like Us, the band, depicts. Of course, New Order composed a song, “Thieves Like Us”, which probably makes it more relevant not only for the fact it’s music, but also because this young band takes strong cues from the ‘80s/kraut/early New Wave axis to which New Order belongs.
Thieves Like Us, the band, comprises of two Swedes (drummer Pontus Berghe and keyboardist Björn Berglund) and an American (vocalist Andy Grier) who met in Berlin and now live in Paris. The trio’s debut LP, Play Music, released on the experimental-dance label Shelflife Records, isn’t so much “experimental” as a little obtuse. Some elements of Thieves Like Us’ sound are entirely pop-dance, and the group has a number of clear influences, mostly as mentioned above from the ‘80s. This isn’t a new sound, but the uncertain, wavering delivery of it conveys both a charming insecurity and a more-tragic loneliness.
After listening to Play Music, one senses these guys spend a lot of time up in their own heads. In this way, they’re a kindred act to Sally Shapiro, though the clarity of their production and sophistication of their musical ideas is nowhere as accomplished as the hushed Swedish phenomenon. For what one might classify an electro album, it contains a surprising number of downbeat tracks, which patiently build atmospheres of synth-wall, disembodied vocals and big-echo snare drums. “Sugar and Song”, a bittersweet track closing the album, constitutes a good example. “Go out in the night”, Grier bids us, as he slides out of tune with the wobbling synths. The effect, at once warm and alienating, bids an uneasy farewell.
Thieves Like Us relies on a certain melodic structure for a majority of its songs. That is, after setting up a steady, mechanical beat, the band likes to construct melodic phrases out of eight eighth-notes repeated quickly then cut off. “If I could wipe you from my mind” is a prototypical phrase from “Headlong Into Night”, a chugging-forward, effectively desolate track. Grier’s vocal style, while straightforward, if a little thin, has the swooning quality of those ‘80s balladeers. But – and here’s where the group proves itself to be more than simple imitators – the vocals often get set up in apposition to the music, straining slightly out of time or tune with the mechanical synths. The group employs a wide variety of vocal styles used on the album—from spoken word to almost-rap to straight pop singing—in an attempt to inject interest into what can be a fairly homogeneous timbre.
Apart from one or two immediately likeable songs (namely, “Your Heart Feels”, a disembodied, crumbling track approaching Cut Copy territory), Thieves Like Us’ music serves as more accomplished than affecting. Well-constructed and confident, it conveys an out-on-your-own abandon quite effectively. But unlike Altman’s film, Play Music is more impressionistic than concrete. A serviceable debut, it has some interesting ideas, though it won’t change the game.