Dance, You Sad Bastard
The Social Registry label has long been known for arty, experimental bands like Gang Gang Dance, Sian Alice, and Growing—challenging, rule-breaking outfits that sometimes fail but even then do so in an arresting, thought-provoking way. It’s an outpost for edgy, dissonant musical bomb-throwing to the point where some reviewers (okay me) will gladly sign up for whatever they’re peddling. Douglas Armour, an LA-based electro songwriter, fits into this aesthetic uncomfortably to say the least. If his whisker-thin pop breaks a rule at all, it’s the rule that Social Registry’s bands should be interesting.
Even on CD, it’s clear that Armour’s first full length has two sides. Side A, everything through “Trembling on the Verge”, is synthetic-rhythmed dance pop, like Junior Boys but smaller-scale. Side B, starting with “Flushed and Flamelike Themselves” and running through the final “The Mystery It Never Lasts”, is guitar-scrubbing indie pop (with synthesizers, admittedly). Let’s take them one at a time.
There’s precedent, obviously, for blending the sad, literate sincerity of indie pop with robot-funky rhythms. Junior Boys, Hot Chip, Kelley Polar, and about a 100 other bands all mess with the formula to some extent, blending varying proportions of booty-skank and poetry. To my mind, no one does it much better than Khaela Maricich of the Blow, and if you listen to her for five minutes, you’ll immediately see what’s missing from Armour’s music: thump. If you want the girls to dance to your tales of middle-class, overeducated alienation, you’ve got to put the drums and bass somewhere up near the front. Armour’s “Fall Apart Again,” the standout from his Pet Shop Boys side, is all treble sounds – slushy disco cymbals, piano, falsetto’d vocals and synth. With almost no bass, it sounds unmoored and inconsequential, the kind of thing you might shuffle clumsily to on the dance floor without ever really catching a groove. Now contrast that with the Blow’s “Parentheses”, which slams you so hard with rhythm that you hardly hear the lyrics, good as they are, until the third or fourth time. Or compare this cut with Hercules & Love Affairs glossy, disco-tinged “This Is My Love”, also heavy on the cymbals and high, keening synth but bounded by pulsing, body-moving bass. It sounds denser and more important.
The indie pop side of The Light of the Golden Day, the Arms of the Night works a lot better, because no one expects much visceral, hip-shaking sensuality from this kind of music. There’s a relaxed, sunny Sea & Cake breeziness to “The Whole World”, its falsetto croons paced and shaped by a persistent rhythm. “Flushed and Flamelike Themselves,” has a nice, synth-aided surge to its chorus of “I can’t live one minute without you,” evoking bands like Maps and maybe even the Cure. “Prince of Wands”, the best of these pop-leaning songs, dips even more into the Robert Smith sound, with its percolating, subtle guitar and (finally) a groundswell of bass.
Still even the best of these tracks seems undistinguished, not exactly bad, but not different enough from a million other songs to justify listening. This is tepid, also-ran stuff from a label that should really know better.