If there was anything we learned from Gwen Stefani last year (other than that her shit is b-a-n-a-n-a-s), it was that pop music is at its best when it’s unpredictable—that it can pull from the past and incorporate the flavor of the moment, and as long as it does either or both well, it can be successful. “Hollaback Girl” was Toni Basil by way of the Neptunes, and “Rich Girl” mashed Eve and Dr. Dre with Fiddler on the Roof. Both, of course, were wildly successful, and played on the radio to the point of nausea. ScientificLifestyle, then, is a band that creates music that is unabashedly pop, but its members do so by combining so many different styles that the resulting mutli-genre pileup has no choice but to be called pop. Oh, and the vocalist, one Nicole Porter, sounds a bit like Gwen Stefani, except with more vocal training. So there’s that, too.
Of course, they don’t call the mixture “pop”, they call it “rocktronica”, but they’re not fooling anyone. Fine, they open their debut album Modern Sounds for the New Era with a song called “A Fraud” that kicks off with a jazz lick on an electronic approximation of a Hammond Organ, but once it gets going, the beats are danceable, there are verses, choruses, and a well-placed bridge, and those choruses are impossibly catchy. It’s pop! “You’re afraid / That everybody thinks / That you are a fraud”, sings Porter, making for what amounts to a seriously infectious electronically-dominated kiss-off tune. It’s a fantastic start.
In fact, ScientificLifestyle finds its most successful footing when Porter is at her most emotional. “Crazy” might well be the album’s highlight, thanks mostly to a chorus bolstered by the male backing vocals of Darius Holbert, finding Porter and Holbert singing “You say I’m crazy / You say you make me crazy / Try not to flatter yourself / You say I’m crazy / I’ll show you fucking crazy / I’m way too big for myself”. The wild-eyed anger in a chorus like that is palpable, and it’s destined for big loud singalong moments at the ScientificLifestyle Concert Experience. Following up “Crazy” with a song like “Masterpiece” is inspired as well, as Porter sings in her deepest, most cinematic tones throughout the song about a broken, wounded, written-off soul that she’ll never give up on, amidst a few gated trance-synths and a hip-hop beat. Porter also impresses on “Right Inside These Headphones”, a song with its roots in hip-hop and a touch of country-western slide guitar, as she does her best torch singer impression à la Beth Gibbons.
Regrettably, most of the other songs smack of music for the sake of it, filled with vaguely wry observations and banal implications. “Paper Doll” twists some old clichés and makes them sound like slightly newer clichés couched in metaphor (“Cut me out and dress me up,” Porter sings), mixing technoey noises with rocky noises and coming up with something that never quite finds an identity. “Shifting Scene” and “It Must Be Close (Safe and Sound)” are more of the same, forgettable, loud pop music that forceably skirts the line between electronic and rock music, with the occasional jazz or hip-hop inflection tossed in for good measure.
But, at least you can dance to it. ScientificLifestyle has managed to create a debut album that’s never really an awful listen, and is occasionally a really great one. Modern Sounds for the New Era is never so steeped in futurism as its album title makes it sound, but it does do a fantastic job of melding a pile of different genres into a sugary pop mix that actually has a little bit of substance behind it.
Now, if they could just find a new name that didn’t inspire thoughts of protractors, calculators, and the Periodic Table, they might even get played on the radio.