[11 April 2011]
PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor
Since its inception in 2007, Portland, Oregon’s Starfucker has been praised for its dance hooks and buoyant energy, perhaps exemplified by the band’s irresistible 2009 cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. Reptilians is the most infectious thing that the band has done yet, but this album, like the group’s self-titled debut, often opts for sensation where simplicity would do. The effect is ultimately one of redundancy.
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Hodges wrote and recorded the primary tracks for the album alone in his room and on the road, and you can tell. The layers of sound build and build, regardless of the limitations that live instrumentation would impose, until the life of the music is often stifled. The songs are built from snappy synthesizers and compulsive bass lines, but as each successive part enters to reinforce the simple dance rhythms and repetitive pop harmonies, the essentials get lost in the mix.
Of course, on first listen, Reptilians is exilharating. The bright coloration and explosive choruses on tracks like “Born” are loud and vivid and unmistakable. In some ways, it’s a step forward from the standard indie fare of Starfucker. The new album is practically lurid in comparison, overflowing with feelings, ideas, and musical flourishes.
“Death as a Fetish”, for example, is introduced by a snippet, tacked onto the previous track, from a lecture by British philosopher Alan Watts. “Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death, and the acceptance of death, is very highly generative of creative life,” he says. The song then starts with a deep, ominous and somehow jubilant bass line. It’s soon joined by an acoustic guitar and a chirping synth, and the track culminates in the gloomy, anthemic refrain. “Your friends / Death as a fetish / Your music / Death is a fetish / Your first kiss / Death is a fetish”, the band chants.
Other tracks, too, strike a nice balance between the profound and the cosmetic. The explosive opener “Born” begins with chattering voices and tinny guitars, quickly overwhelmed by a shuddering wash of electronics. Once they lay down the groove, the band delivers the verses in ethereal harmony. “So many people / Evil / Killing”, they sing. The first time you hear it, it’s hard not to hit repeat instead of moving onto the next song.
Reptilians has many such moments. After a few times around, however, the riffs and hooks lose their luster and the music gets drowned out by purposeless effects. “Bury Us Alive”, “Astoria”, and “The White of Noon” all suffer from this kind of overexposure. Despite a solid ear for pop exuberance and a deft touch for the dramatic, Starfucker ultimately beats itself at its own game.
That cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” may be the best thing the band’s ever done. Starfucker took the song’s basic framework and amped it up with a throbbing bass, a pounding 4/4 beat and hypnotic vocals. Lauper’s old hit sounded louder, more modern and more alive. As noisy and overwrought as Reptilians is, it’s also quite promising—one has to wonder what it would sound like if Starfucker performed the same operation on its own music.