Any critic will testify, it’s the middlers that get you. The appeal of great albums is something primal, so much so that to review them is like opening your heart, while shit ones leave a stench so bad they practically write about themselves. It’s the records that make more right moves than wrong and still make you feel nothing that are the problem.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Black Kids were supposed to be an attention-grabbing, opinion-splitting, provocatively named, love-them-or-hate-them kind of band. After all, they’ve the got songs about lust and womanising, a moniker your mum inexplicably thinks is racist and a backlash that began so early it makes it look as though Foals were veterans before a solitary negative vibe was sent their way. Yet get this: Partie Traumatic is catchy, inoffensive indie pop.
But then maybe that was the naysayers’ point. Certainly their most famed detraction, Idolator’s blog post entitled “The Black Kids Hype Must Be Stopped”, never suggests an overtly bad band, merely one undeserving of their rapid ascension to indie-fame and the collective huffing-and-puffing of the music press. Which, it turns out, is pretty much spot on, for Partie Traumatic is a promising jumble of pop hooks spotted with the occasional patch of darkness and ambiguity, all exercised with a vaguely ramshackle air that mostly staves off the sheen of major label polish. But that I’ve even used those last three words is staggering, because in a saner world Black Kids would maybe have released a couple of singles on an independent by now, never having glimpsed freshly buffed tables of Columbia Records let alone signed contracts on them. And so it’s no surprise that the album sounds a little undeveloped—much of its material simply hasn’t had time to do so.
Perhaps inevitability, then, Partie Traumatic‘s best bits are the ones that have been around longer, four of them culled from last year’s download-only EP The Wizard of Ahhhs. Of them, it’s what’s now become the band’s calling card, “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” that most deserves its preternaturally early fame. A gleeful ode to an already-taken girl, its reverb-heavy guitar and Reggie Youngblood’s insecure Robert Smith holler provide the perfect foil for Go! Team style cheerleader chants and luminous New Wave synth lines. It’s got a damn catchy chorus, too, and that’s what we’re here for isn’t it, really? Youngblood adopts a more debonair tack for “Hurricane Jane”, surprising given that here he’s the one doing the chasing of the eponymous girl, but the end destination’s pretty much the same—the song’s got massive chorus as potentially universal (“It’s Friday night and I ain’t go nobody / So what’s the use of pulling a shape?”) as it is singalong catchy.
But the problem is that for every indie anthem or teenage singalong there’s another song on Partie Traumatic that just doesn’t work. It’s rare for any of them to be completely devoid of appeal; rather, it seems like Black Kids had more ideas than they really knew what to do with, and so in the end just chucked them together and let them organise themselves. “Hit the Heartbrakes”, for instance, opens with storming lead guitar that would just about make amends for that awful titular pun, did it not give way to a verse of hideous girl-boy vocal tennis that suggests the band knew they wanted to glue together the opening riff to what proves to be another decent chorus, but didn’t have a clue how to do it.
“Listen to Your Body Tonight” has even less to going for it. Youngblood offers up another catchy chorus line, but apparently the band had no other ideas and so just repeated it as often as they deemed acceptable, filling the gaps in between with squelchy synth and some seriously dodgy rhyming (“So now you’re in my bedroom / All talking about some boom-boom”). The song also features the nadir of the call-response vocal that intermittently irritates throughout Partie Traumatic, in which Reg and his sister Ali carry out a conversation between the evidently horny speaker and—yeah, of course—their own body. The results (“Hello? Hello, this your body. What do you want my body? I wanna feel somebody on me”) make you pray that someone, somewhere had a tongue in firmly in their cheek when that was conceived.
Maybe it’s churlish to criticise an album you sense is meant primarily to be danced to, but an indie pop album of this nature could sink or swim on its lyrical value. And while Youngblood fills his sardonic twinkle with playful sexual allusions and gender ambiguity (the amount of times he refers to himself as a woman could need a third hand to count on), there’s too many clunky lines and rhymes-for-rhyming’s sake (“I ain’t trying to be liable / I swear it on the Bible”, “The jungle is massive / So please don’t be passive”) for Partie Traumatic to be anything more than lyrically intriguing.
Perhaps, when they’ve finished trotting all four corners of the globe with their debut, Black Kids will return to their native Florida, sit down to write a sophomore, and everything will just click. Perhaps, alternatively, the pieces of the jigsaw will never quite fit and the the fivesome will forever be known as “that band who wrote that song about dancing with your girlfriend”. But certainly, if we see Partie Traumatic is the undeveloped prototype, inside Black Kids there’s a wonderfully tight, melodically sublime and lyrically enthralling album just starting to open its eyes. This just isn’t quite it.