[7 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As fans of new music it can be so easy to get lost in the search for something bold, exciting, and original that you sometimes forget just how satisfying well-executed, formulaic music can be. Take Austin, Texas’s Ringo Deathstarr, for instance. Sporting a band name that sounds lifted from a silly Twitter hashtag game (say, #beatlesstarwars), they have absolutely nothing new to say, simply following the leads of the Jesus and Mary Chain and several C86 bands, churning out the shoegaze and indie pop as if it was 1989 rather than 2011. Upon hearing it, it’s tempting for a jaded indie rock listener to simply brush aside this sort music with a snide, “been there, done that”, and continue his or her blog search for the latest chillwave microsensation. However, for anyone who experienced the classic era when those shoegaze seemed to be exploding out of the UK at a ridiculous rate, there’s a familiarity to Ringo Deathstarr that is damn near irresistible. This isn’t simply a young band pandering to Gen-X nostalgia, either—let’s leave that to the unfortunately-named Yuck—this is a case of a group of musicians who clearly have a strong, sincere devotion to a classic sound and pull it off with surprising grace.
As slavish as Ringo Deathstarr are in their desire to replicate classic late ‘80s UK indie, though, the execution wasn’t always there. With an EP (2007’s Ringo Deathstarr) and a single (2009’s In Love) under their belts, the band’s material was fun enough, but the approach was so blunt at times that it had you wondering if they might be better off listening to something other than Psychocandy for once. For every hint of inspiration (“In Love”), there was a song that took the brothers Reid worship a little too far (“Some Kind of Sad”). They had the mechanics down, the right guitar tone, solid, dense production, but the songwriting lacked the nuance to elevate the early material to several notches above “copycat”.
That the band’s debut full-length is an improvement isn’t much of a surprise; you could sense they were close. The real shocker, though, is just how far Ringo Deathstarr has come in such short a period of time. The Jesus and Mary Chain gimmick is still present on Colour Trip, but the foursome, now bolstered with the presence of bassist and co-lead vocalist Alex Gehring, has expanded its musical palette to the point where they shift gears between varying styles so effortlessly that it’s enough to convince listeners they’ve been doing this for the past 20 years. Granted, by “expanding their musical palette”, we mean they’ve moved slightly forward to the early ‘90s, but the way the band nails it on the new album is something special.
First the hooks of the 11-song, 33-minute Colour Trip get you, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find Ringo Deathstarr’s attention to detail is just as impressive. It doesn’t take long to figure out that “Imagine Hearts” is an obvious My Bloody Valentine homage, but the way Elliott Frazer unleashes those quavering, unsettling chords atop Daniel Cobrun’s shuffling beat, not to mention Gehring’s spot-on channeling of Bilinda Butcher’s enigmatic singing style, is remarkable. The sprightly tempo and fey melodies of “So High” smack of the Primitives, Gehring’s twee singing and Frazer’s deadpan, lover-register delivery offsetting each other beautifully. The layers of chiming guitars and Gehring’s wispy-thin singing on “Two Girls” will immediately remind folks of early Lush, Frazer’s affectations on the pulsating “Kaleidoscopes” only enhances the song’s Stone Roses feel even more, while “Other Things” places Gehring’s voice front and center, the song’s gentle tone heading in more of a Slowdive direction.
Of course, interspersed throughout the record are the requisite Jesus and Mary Chain rip-offs, and the simplicity of songs like “Do It Every Time” and “Never Drive”, sounding just as effective as anything by the Raveonettes, help keep everything grounded. Like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and A Place to Bury Strangers, Ringo Deathstarr dips into classic shoegaze with more than enough energy to make the lack of originality a non-factor, but there’s something about the versatility the band shows on Colour Trip that makes it all slightly more intriguing than their peers. If they keep this up, it shouldn’t be long before they’re noted for their musical strengths instead of their band name.