Moving Units were inexplicably lost in the pandemonium surrounding the retro-suckling mecha-funk* renaissance of the last two years. When the Los Angeles band released its debut album Dangerous Dreams in late 2004, the mecha-funk craze was completing its short, visceral arc from the underground to the suburbs: one year had passed since the Raptures’ Echoes and !!!‘s “Me & Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard”; the Killers were securing corporate airplay with their thinly veiled regurgitations of the Cure and Duran Duran; and it would be merely a few months before Franz Ferdinand joined the Black Eyed Peas and Gwen Stefani onstage at the Grammys. Though not as witty or catchy as Franz Ferdinand, Moving Units are at least as good as the Killers; one would think that would count for something besides serving as a casualty of the genre and a reminder of its limitations.
But here we are in early 2005, watching mecha-funk hang on to the final leg of its cycle (world domination), and Moving Units’ Dangerous Dreams is, essentially, D.O.A. Perhaps because Moving Units don’t cop the same mainstream influences as a band like the Killers (whose success must be attributed, in some respect, to the influential commodity of nostalgia), they now can’t share in the bounteous windfall. Moving Units—Blake Miller, Johan Bogeli, and Chris Hathwell—are pale and precious, synthetic and sterile. Their guitars are high-glossed daggers, drums are price-slashing arm movements—liberally abusing the high hat**—and vocals, lightly obscured in pseudo-treacherous fuzz, are markedly masculine yet prone to excessive eyeliner. Dangerous Dreams is either an homage to an homage or a flimsy extension of a fading movement; regardless, its been-there, done-that mediocrity is ultimately what defines it best.
Moving Units’ routine gets more helplessly obvious as the tracks progress; most coast in an unembellished stereotype of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club doing Franz Ferdinand at a karaoke bar. The album’s first five songs test the patience of said routine: over the stiff grooves, the guitars stab (“Emancipation”), slice (“Between Us and Them”), buzzsaw (“Available”), and reconstruct U2’s “Zoo Station” (“Going for Adds”), but these are all merely minute variations on a shared theme. The synthesizers added to “Anyone” fail to score points for kitschy retro chic, instead calling to mind an uninvited return of Golden Earring.
The band fares better when it ventures beyond its safe zone. “Scars” bucks the self-imposed formula, delivering a much moodier example of noir rock, a churning exercise in atmosphere. “Birds of Prey”, with its urgent, lunging bass, revels in an unexpected, funky breakdown of hiccupping guitar and handclaps. The break in monotony concludes with “Bricks and Mortar”, which cribs the playbook from Drums and Wires-era XTC. Soon, Moving Units are back to their old tricks, recycling the same robo-skank one time too many with latter inclusions like “Killer/Lover”.
Whether you embrace this cult of ‘80s revivalism or not, it’s fair to say that, now more than ever, it takes a genuine dose of innovation for a band to muscle its way above the pack. Moving Units aren’t that band. Much like Dangerous Dreams’ recurring theme of submission, Moving Units give themselves up as just another brick in the mechanically homogenized wall. Lines like “You control me / I’m your machine” (“Emancipation”) and “I’m useless / So just use me” (“Birds of Prey”) are indicative of the bigger picture: the band’s near-masochistic acquiescence to the mecha-funk routine. Some of us simply won’t surrender so easily.
*More commonly known as dancepunk and/or post-punk, which I simply won’t use here; I believe that mecha-funk is, descriptively, more apt. “Dancepunk” conjures images of Joe Strummer as a zombie in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, and that just suggests a faulty association. Additionally, many readers would object to “dancepunk” serving as a blanket description for all of the bands listed above. I find that “mecha-funk” serves them all just fine. Trust me.
**The high hat, when not used sparingly and selectively, is subjected to aggressive overuse. When not respected, it courts chaos. High hat abuse is why disco is bad and airport security lines take so long and your last girlfriend cheated on you. (Male infidelity is due to RotoTom abuse.) By the end of Dangerous Dreams, the sound of a high hat can induce nausea: its obscene presence tinny, it flutters and contracts, bobbing its head on an incessant upbeat, the percussive equivalent of Krist Novaselic’s root note bass playing, predictable and gratuitous and exactly what’s expected.
// Notes from the Road
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