The two members of the British electro-pop band Robots in Disguise call themselves Sue Denim and Dee Plume. Denim and Plume not only sing about their D.I.Y. art, but actually throw it to their audiences. They also like to sing a lot about the fact that they are in a band called Robots in Disguise. It is a credit to their talent that Robots in Disguise manage to create a stylistic art-school sound where these potentially aggravating tendencies seem acceptable. These facts, however, reflect the main flaw in this potentially great album: the band’s dedication to style, particularly self-reflexive lyrics and wayward genre hopping, over substance. All this abundant cleverness never manages to cohere into definitive statements.
Listening to Robots in Disguise’s self-titled debut album makes me feel like a teacher reading a paper by an intelligent student who has decided to coast through a class. Robots in Disguise includes some powerful moments that show that the band has the potential to rise above the herd of one-note synth-rockers that dominate the new wave revival, but these moments are always trapped in unstructured songs that fail to make an impression. This is the rough draft of a really good debut album.
Certainly it sounds well crafted on first listen. By incorporating elements from mid-‘90s trip-hop and electronica-influenced alt-rock, Robots in Disguise sound radically different from the latest punk band who has rented a mini-Moog. Certainly strands of punk rock, synth-pop and modern day electro-punk influence their work, but the electronic sounds that Robots in Disguise borrow from seem much more modern than the typical early ‘80s music that most of these bands try to copy. Denim and Plume sing in a way that suggests a peaceful truce between the dry, unaffected vocals of Ladytron and the breathy, ethereal voices that dominated trip-hop during its salad days. Maybe the presence of Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner pushes the band into a more trip-hop direction, but the band seems comfortable enough with the genre to use it as a base for their stylistic experimentations. Nearly every song features at least one brilliant bit. The vocals on “D.I.Y.”, yes the song where they sing about their art, are haunting and seductive in a way that brings to mind Elizabeth Fraser at her most accessible. “Bed Scenes” features a viciously distorted bass line designed to seduce listeners into turning the stereo up to a speaker-decimating volume, while “50 Minutes” shifts dramatically from a sleep-inducing verse into a menacing chorus consisting of Denim and Plume singing “50 minutes / 52 weeks / Four years” over and over again with greater and greater intensity.
These moments, however, either spring out of nowhere and fade away soon after, or they just repeat themselves until the listener loses interest. Songs that should be hypnotic become tiresome, and every song seems to go on for at least a minute and a half longer than it should. The song “What Junior Band Did Next” pretty much exemplifies the possibilities of Robots in Disguise and their weaknesses. Awash in strange and beautiful sounds, both electronic and acoustic, the song is a beautiful soundscape that manages to convey a cinematic mood without words. Unfortunately, Robots in Disguise add words to the mix, a spoken-word piece about a “boy named Junior Band” who takes on the name “Robots in Disguise”. This narrative detracts from a song that could have been a gripping centerpiece as the parts of the song that are sung rather than spoken end up far more affecting than the twee spoken word bit filled with horrid lines such as “kissing with tongues became a main preoccupation”.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Robots in Disguise is the fact that the final two remixes of lead-off track “Boys” are better than the original version. The remixers, Hidden Agenda and SIN, find all the interesting sonic details laden in the original song and create memorable tracks from them. The Hidden Agenda remix highlights their electronica fetishism, producing a pulsing hypnotic track worthy of the KLF. The SIN remix, in contrast, spotlights Robots in Disguise’s allegiance to rock and roll with a near-industrial take on their feminist deconstruction of the appeal of the opposite sex.
Robots in Disguise’s first album is full of wonderful sounds and wonderful song ideas, but the two never seem to mesh. This is the band’s first full-length album, which means they have plenty of time to create memorable art out of their already promising material, but Robots in Disguise has the same impact as the winning entry in a pre grad art school contest: it is aesthetically pleasing, thought provoking without being pedantic, but ultimately a hollow emotional experience.