In a year in which critical darlings have thus far been defined by either severe art damage or prog excess, it’s refreshing to see a band more interested in writing pop songs than grand, conceptual opuses. Klang, the Rakes’s third full-length release, isn’t one for daring experiments, redefinitions or weirdness. In fact, little separates this album from the band’s 2005 debut besides, well, time. While the post-punk territory the band walks might be a bit too safe and well traveled at this point, at least this band seems intimately familiar with it and able to chart a clean and efficient route from point A to point B. It might not be the most exciting trip in the world, but at least you’re not going to get lost in aimless pockets of “found sound” or songs written “in character”. The Rakes know exactly where they’re going.
Case in point: Klang clocks in at under a half hour, and its longest song (“Muller’s Ratchet”, which also houses the highest population of dirty guitar breaks on the album) goes on for exactly 21 seconds past the three-minute mark. That doesn’t mean everything’s all straight lines through uniform blocks of verse and chorus. This album’s most-notable aspect is just how much the band manages to cram into such small nuggets of time without turning these songs into shapeless blobs. “The Loneliness of the Outdoor Smoker”, the most straight-ahead punk tune on Klang, barrels forward without ever feeling like it’s in danger of spilling over the edge of its two minutes or sticking rigidly to verse-chorus, finding time for an expansive drum break and lots of miniature, treble-filled guitar solos to fill in the gaps where things might otherwise begin to get a little staid. This sort of nimble songwriting, a fine balance between comfort and novelty without ever straying into dreaded mini-suite territory, makes Klang an easy album to enjoy.
Unfortunately for the Rakes, it makes for a difficult album to love. Nearing the end of this decade, we’ve gotten about as much mileage out of the turn-of-the-century post-punk revival—in the UK, headed by several groups of fashionable NME coverboys who really want you to dance—as we’re going to. And the fact the Rakes have backpedaled to the barebones, jangly punk of its debut Capture/Release instead of further exploring the promising, though largely mishandled expansions of Ten New Messages, feels like a defeat—and the most boring kind of defeat, at that. Mostly because, with all the treble-charged post-punkers winning the adoration of critics for the better part of this decade, we’ve by now developed a sort of immunity to this strain of pop music. If a band who still subscribes to this whole bag is going to register at this point, it had better be with something breathtakingly transcendent. (Even then, they’re still going to draw autopilot comparisons to Silent Alarm and Franz Ferdinand.)
Naturally, this ain’t gonna happen, and despite going through the pretense of recording in goddamn Berlin, no transcendence can be found on Klang. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s anything worthy of outright scorn here. Technically, the Rakes sound more precise and well-oiled than ever on even the worst of these cuts (which, really, aren’t much worse than the best of these cuts), and every one of Matthew Swinnerton’s dirty guitar fills feels like it’s there because it’s supposed to be there, not because the band ran out of ideas and haphazardly tried to cover up a hole in the wall. Likewise, singer Alan Donohoe’s excursions into quavering, Johnny Rotten delirium remain as entertaining as ever, as do his plain spoken, often clever lyrics dealing with the concerns of 20-something Londoners (i.e., lots of sex peppered with the occasional, mild existential dilemma). And while none of the hooks on Klang prove sharp enough to catch on the first spin, enough usually happens that inclined listeners will be content to explore the tangents and detours packed into each of these three-minute slices of danceable post-punk until they do.
With a sound that was already beginning to feel conservative and dated a few years ago, the only people listening to the Rakes at this point are going to be those who don’t know any better and those looking for some comfort food, which may well be a lot of people, but is there anything here that’s going to have any of them coming back for round four? Klang shows us a band who remains an efficient machine, but also a machine that’s becoming increasingly outdated. And, barring a drastic restructuring on its next effort, one begins to wonder just how much longer it will take for the rust to tighten its grip.
// Notes from the Road
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