[10 April 2011]
You have to give Parts & Labor credit for never resting on their laurels—who knows if they even have any. The Brooklyn group began with the instrumental noise of Groundswell (2003), moved toward electro-tinged, vocal-led tracks on Stay Afraid (2006), amped up the anthemics on Mapmaker (2007), and incorporated hundreds of fan-delivered samples into Receivers (2008). Throughout this process of reinvention, the band’s basic elements have remained surprisingly consistent. A rotating cast of drummers provide maximalist beats, while guitars and keys rush to catch up in a wall of equal parts bubblegum melody and hardcore-copping noise. Vocalists Dan Friel and B.J. Warshaw can be difficult to tell apart, each finding a progenitor in Joy Division’s master of baritone gloom, Ian Curtis. All of this goes toward the band’s essential conundrum, the question of how to reconcile their sky-high ambitions with the inherent musical limitations their hardcore palettes bring to the table.
The answer’s not always apparent on Constant Future. Parts & Labor have a clear collective ear for melody, apparent in every chug of guitar or squee of keyboard, but Friel and Warshaw’s larynges aren’t equipped to shoot for the rafters along with their instruments. Nor are their pens. The lyrics here range from the blandly aggro (the “beaten, borrowed, begged, and bartered” people of “Echo Chamber”) to upholding hardcore’s long tradition of ambiguous sloganeering (the chorus of “Without a Seed” reminds us “nothing grows without a seed”). On the other hand, the music can be hard to resist. Constant Future has a way of tapping itself right into your adrenal glands. “Rest” uses its floor tom to get the blood pumping, and the harmonies managed by Friel and Warshaw help them to together break free of the limitations of their individual vocal ranges. That, after all, is a perfect theme for a band with hardcore roots: the idea of communalism helping one person rise above.
“Echo Chamber”, despite its lyrical failings, has an unrelenting rhythmical momentum, given an even sharper boost by bright keyboard riffs. “Pure Annihilation” slows things down enough to let its interlocking keyboard and guitar melodies breathe. When Parts & Labor take a step back from trying to get the sweaty basement crowds pumping their fists in the air, they actually discover just how to do that. Contrast opener “Fake Names” with “Skin and Bones”. The former obscures a driving melody underneath too-busy percussion and an overwhelming crunch of guitars, while the latter lets the drums set a groove while the guitars dart over and under. It’s just more interesting, musically.
Constant Future is by no means a bad record. It is a record that oversells itself. These guys have the ideas, the gift for making earworms, and the energy. Now, they need to embrace the restraint that could make the next Parts & Labor album a real anthem, front-to-back. Sometimes the best way to connect with your audience is to leave the sledgehammer at home.