Elefant frontman Diego Garcia must be electric onstage. Listening to Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid‘s ten tracks, you can practically see his swagger, as he combines British affectation with New York cool. The band probably makes a decent backdrop for this theatrics, too, with the rhythm section laying down a metronomic beat while guitarist Mod plays his minimal, striking guitar parts, all willfully oblivious to the audience. But all eyes will be on Garcia.
But what’s a strength onstage can be a weakness on disc, as Elefant’s debut amply demonstrates. Garcia sings like he’s a Broadway version of an ‘80s new wave artist, with everything taken up just one notch too high. The mock accent, the weary disaffection, the vibrato, all register as being slightly, but unknowingly, artificial. Initially, it’s not that distracting, but upon multiple listens, it dominates the recording like, well, an elephant.
There’s nothing wrong with theatricality in rock—David Bowie and Morrissey, clearly two of Garcia’s heroes, have made careers of it. But both of those artists imbue their performances with an element of camp, a certain wink to the audience, that gives everything they do an ironic sheen. There’s not much of an indication that Diego Garcia’s lead singer stance is anything but sincere, as he croons lines like, “Love / It’s a beautiful place / It’s a beautiful taste.”
If you can get beyond Garcia’s new-wave-icon posturing, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid is a modestly enjoyable, pleasantly lean-sounding record, the kind of thing that would make you rest on the radio dial as you drive. Drummer Kevin McAdams and bassist James Jeffrey Berrall’s insistent, almost disco, rhythms, are fun if somewhat monotonous. Guitarist Mod’s playing is uniformly crisp, and occasionally surprising, like the surgical, Robert Fripp-esque guitar solo on “Bokkie”. His restrained, melodic licks on the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Bowie “Static on Channel 4”, and hooky, Strokes-like strumming on “Misfit” reveal him to be a musician with real versatility.
The songs themselves are generally slight, but agreeable. Tracks like “Make-Up” and “Now That I Miss Her” have a head-bobbing charm, while “Tonight Let’s Dance”, even though its title recalls two David Bowie albums, sounds like a successful hybrid of the Cure and Suede. When the band engages in more emotive material, it’s less effective, as on the title track, a hookless tune with an overblown vocal performance modeled after Bono’s more shameless moments.
The album closes with a straightforward song of unrequited love, the winsome “Ester”. On this track, Garcia lets down his pose slightly, and allows himself to sound vulnerable as he sings, “And I night when I called you, I was being young / And the way I tried to win you, I was being young.” It’s a welcome, warm moment on album overly obsessed with keeping cool, and it’s the most credible performance that Garcia gives. If he ever tires of the footlights and wants to grow as a recording artist, it’s a direction he may want to follow.