There’s something apt about the oft-mentioned erstwhile musical endeavours of the Ting Tings. Both Katie White, the duo’s perky blonde frontwoman, and completing cog Jules De Martino featured in various outfits prior to the electro-pop of their current incarnation. As a teen, White made up a third of an all-girl group that made small ripples, supporting bubblegum-pop-peddlers Steps and the similarly ignominious Brit boy band Five, before ultimately coming to nothing. De Martino, too, established a few unsuccessful troupes before the pair united in a threesome, Dear Eskimo, who despite major label backing never released anything of note. While the Ting Tings swift chart ascension obviously breaks from this history of solid foundations with little end product, We Started Nothing, their debut full-length release, does follow a similar trajectory.
Arguably, it peaks too soon, opening its ten-strong set with the Manchester outfit’s three first singles, “Great DJ”, “That’s Not My Name” and “Fruit Machine”, the second of which recently enjoyed a stint as UK no.1 in a trimmed-down rendition. But in truth these three make for a golden hello in showcasing the Ting Tings’ best strength: constructing simple, punchy pop tunes with energy and zest if not songwriting flair. It’s a formula they repeat time and time again throughout their debut, but never with quite as much success as on its opening gambits.
“Great DJ” begins the album with a simplistic, rasping chord sequence (reminiscent in rhythm and structure to Midlake’s “Kingfish Pies”, curiously enough), but one that is soon sugar-coated by a dancefloor-destined chorus of “ah-ah-ah"s and “ee-ee-ee"s, its brazen rejection of logical lyrical construction in favour of “the drums, the drums, the drums” seemingly an invitation to join it there. “That’s Not My Name” takes longer to reach a similarly energizing destination, but does so eventually, where its chanted title, shrouded in the maelstrom of climactic fuzz, proves itself to be a better backing vocal than chorus. “Fruit Machine”, though, is the weakest of the three, its cartoonish “Whole Lotta Love” bassline repeated energetically to the point of irritation, unaided by the fact that its chorus is reminiscent of something White might have sang in her teenybopping days. The hideously twee inclusion of rattling change and the (appropriate) ting of the song’s titular contraption hardly help matters either.
Still, the singles do their job; they’re catchy, pert and sunny enough for the afternoon slots on this summer’s festival circuit the band will no doubt be given, an appeal which will no doubt only increase if Britain is blessed with a few rays of ultraviolet this year. But little of what follows—the punchy “Shut Up and Let Me Go” excepted, but we’ll get to that in a minute—is capable of substantiating this lure. The likes of “Keep Your Head” and “Be the One” are flowery nuggets of electro-pop, catchy enough to be mildly diverting but ultimately pretty hollow, while token slow number “Traffic Light”, although evidencing White’s capable vocals better than anywhere else, is perfectly pretty but far from stunning. We Started Nothing‘s closing two efforts suggest a developing sense of adventure, so it’s unfortunate that they’re the worst two songs on the album: “Impacilla Carpisung” is a limpid, ill-advised tangle of CSS-cum-Le Tigre vocals chanted and looped with all the panache of a Grange Hill singalong; while the titular closer sets shaking foundations for six minutes of gradual expansion by pinning strained falsetto to a riff so tired it runs out of life within a few seconds of its overlong playtime.
What’s more, White invalidates some of her band’s exuberant, feel-good appeal by persistently adopting an antagonistic, come-and-have-a-go vibe. Call it attitude, call it pluck; whatever it is, it gets a bit tiresome after a while. If there’s a meaningful feminist message within “That’s Not My Name” (“Are you calling me ‘darling’? / Are you calling me ‘bird’?”) than it’s lost amid the brattiness of it’s execution, while a similarly shouty, pissed-off-schoolgirl approach crops up also in “Keep Your Head”, “We Walk”, “Impacilla Carpisung” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go”. Only in this latter example (which is suspiciously reminiscent of CSS’s biggest hit, “Let’s Make Love”, incidentally) does it sound entirely appropriate, where it’s the perfect modus operandi for White’s defiant, well… pissed-off-schoolgirl lyrics (“I ain’t freakin’ / I ain’t faking this / Shut up and let me go!”)
While we’re on that particular subject, lyrics aren’t exactly the Ting Tings strong point, either. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, given that there’s very few who see the release of an electro-pop album as ripe opportunity for a good psychoanalysis and it’s hard to imagine there’ll be many people trawling through De Martino or White’s respective histories in search of some deeper understanding of the profundity behind titles like “Great DJ”, but the duo often shoot themselves in the foot by trapping themselves inside clumsy metaphors. After all, if you’re going find raison d’être for a love song in such questionable areas as fruit machines and traffic lights then awkward lines like “Hold me, nudge me, spinning me around / Where’s the money? Can’t hear that clinking sound” are an inevitability.
But that’s a churlish gripe, in truth, when what the Ting Tings do is make sunny, punchy pop songs, and what’s more, that’s something that actually do pretty well. How much lifespan there is in the project, however, is another question entirely, and it won’t be too surprising if White and De Martino find themselves back at square one if they can’t rein their briefly-aired sense of experimentation in a more palatable direction. For now, though, it’s likely that a fair few people will be happy for We Started Nothing to be the soundtrack of their summer.
// Notes from the Road
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