There’s a thin line between art and pretentiousness, between being challenging and needlessly inscrutable. Radiohead have crossed the line so often that they’ve all but erased it. Yet that outlier (and perhaps Björk) aside, most bands can’t straddle the fence forever. They eventually fall to one side or the other. Massive Attack: art. Joan of Arc: pretentious. The Avalanches: art. Sigur Rós: pretentious. And so it goes.
Life Without Buildings are the latest indie sensations from the UK. They’ve been making waves in the British press for the past year or so, with their debut record, Any Other City, and getting all sorts of auspicious comparisons to rock royalty like Talking Heads, Public Image Limited, and Patti Smith. And after a listen or two to the record, one immediately sees where raving journalists are coming from. Robert Johnson’s shimmering guitar lines neatly wrap around Will Bradley’s sturdy drum patterns. And the song constructions frequently and graciously conjure up the ghosts of post-punk’s past while also managing to ferret out their own identities.
As you can tell, I like Life Without Buildings. Their sound is comfortable, familiar, and instantly gratifying. Unfortunately, their lead singer, Sue Tompkins, has thrown a wrench in many of these otherwise impeccable compositions by obfuscating their charms with her girlish squeal. It should be noted that many have praised Tompkins’ unusual vocal style, which is heavy on repetition and syllabic exaggeration. I call it an unwelcome distraction.
Rather than allowing her voice to compliment the music, Tompkins mostly acts as though she’s in direct competition with the instruments. She often wins the battle, drowning out the arrangements with her jarring phrasings on more than a few of the numbers. Such is the case with the opening track, “PS Exclusive”, where she endlessly repeats “the right stuff”, varying only her emphasis. “The r-I-I-I-g-h-t stuff” becomes “t-h-h-h-e right stuff” and “the right s-t-u-u-u-f-f” until she successfully runs the listener’s patience into the ground. On the very next track, she delivers her lines without any regard to the natural pauses or cadence of the song, like a little kid interrupting the dinner conversation.
Interesting? Maybe, if the instrumentation were as willfully obtuse as her spastic vocal delivery, or, alternately, if Tompkins were to tone down her histrionics in the interest of melodic integrity. But Any Other City is far from a happy compromise. There are the occasional glimpses of what might have been, such as on “Juno”, which showcases the band’s chugging grit and coaxes a less obtrusive performance from Tompkins. “Young Offenders” is a similarly smart digression, with Tompkins stuttered refrains appropriately mimicking Johnson’s chiming guitar effects. But the rest of the time, Tompkins seems to be working from a different sonic blueprint than the rest of her band. Life Without Buildings’ post-punk roots and the off-kilter vocals are more than a little incongruous. As a result, Any Other City sounds like a game of musical tug-o-war, a draw between art and pretension.