Nothing can destroy a band like major-label politics. It’s bad enough for established acts, but just imagine how bad it is if you’re just getting your start.
West Indian Girl is the pseudonym of Robert James and Francis Ten, a psych/dance/rock outfit based out of L.A. After gathering a band together and signing with Astralwerks shortly after the new millennium broke, West Indian Girl seemed to be primed for success. However, this was not the case. Their eponymous debut landed in 2004 and was met with little acclaim or publicity. A dance-remix EP was released two years later, but no one was answering the Girl’s calls. Keyboardist Chris Carter left the group and soon the remaining band members found themselves dropped from Astralwerks altogether. Regrouping at their L.A. HQ, the band rekindled their sound into something more bubbly, signed with another label (indie stalwarts Milan), and released 4th & Wall at the tail end of 2007.
What’s unfortunate, however, is that despite the band’s good intentions, West Indian Girl 2.0 isn’t all that better than the original model.
A large part of this problem stems from the glossy hyper-production that dominates the album. The group has broke open the expansive atmospherics of their debut into a more homogenized club sound, bouncing bright live-instrument harmonies off of each other (as well as beautiful, well-placed female vocals). The result—quite oddly—ends up sounding like a Twin Cinema-era New Pornographers relaxing after a couple of bong hits. The band is still sharp and professional, but the album’s feel-good vibe dominates any notion of technical precision, instead focusing on sunny grooves moreso than actual songs. Opener “To Die in L.A.” is a perfect example of this, gradually building upon the same verse-chorus loop by adding more synths, jangle guitars, and pretty vocal harmonies until they can add no more. “Sofia” feels more like a modern-day update of Boston’s rising-action pop songs, uplifting and only occasionally going out of the way to perform melodic acrobatics (though the operatic voice singing the opening notes of Pachabel’s Canon half-way through proves to be as jarring as it is inexplicable).
By themselves, the songs on 4th & Wall are fine. When coupled together on an album, however, the group winds up repeating the same trick over and over: bringing in another bouncy melody, decorating it with synth bubbles and unbearably bad lyrics (”I know there’s a world of space between / The stars are suns that ebb and flow the words we speak” from “Solar Eyes” is one such example), and calling it a day. When it’s hard to discern one song from another in shuffle mode, you know it’s a bad sign.
However, there are some bright spots to be found here, and they can all be found in the moments when the group actually slows things down. “All My Friends”—which, sadly, is not a cover of the already-classic LCD Soundsystem song—comes off as a slowed-down, acoustic recasting of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” (complete with a momentary tabla breakdown). “Up the Coast” has the bright chirping vibe of a Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips, and the druggy “Rise from the Dead” unleashes the darker side of the band that showed up much more prominently on their debut. These moments add a bit more character into a sunshine-filled album that knows little beyond the rays it casts.
4th & Wall is a good album, but far from a great one. By trying so hard to colorful all the time, West Indian Girl have lost sight of texture, making their album’s momentum plateau before they even hit the fourth track. To survive the major-label wranglings that they’ve gone through is nothing short of admirable. The only thing that would impress us more is by making the music more intriguing than the drama surrounding it.