[10 May 2011]
Three years after the magnetic St. Dymphna, Gang Gang Dance has produced another manic and joyful album of worldbeat noises. Eye Contact plays like a dramatic cycle from morning to night: the feel of the album peaks and dips in energy in a perfect sequence to sustain energy and attention. Though it pushes more towards traditional song structure than Gang Gang has done in the past, the group does not give up its expert taste for noise, squeaks, pops, and maxed out bass. Overall, the new album is a thick slab of synth-ridden melody that may be poppier but no less inspiring.
This is Gang Gang’s first album for 4AD, which has recently ushered other bands, like Ariel Pink, Iron & Wine, and tUnE-yArDs, into bigger more fully formed sounds. The common trajectory from lo to hi-fi sometimes loses fans who call themselves purists. No matter what, to put Eye Contact in a similar trajectory of Gang Gang Dance’s waltz into maturity sells it short with a worn narrative. The three albums, starting with God’s Money and ending with Eye Contact are a solid trilogy that are really of a piece. If anything, Eye Contact is the crowning achievement in its consistency and unrelenting thickness. Thick is really the most apt word to describe the sound on this album. Gang Gang Dance has always been a group of eclectic and sophisticated sound connoisseurs, a record collector’s band whose jubilance can appeal likewise to the novice. Here they weave together sounds into a seamless patchwork, rich in layers and excitement.
As the members’ hosting of the 88 Boadrum concert in Brooklyn around the time of the last album attests, Gang Gang Dance is a band that celebrates rhythm. Eye Contact finds the band breaking in a new drummer for the recording, Jesse Lee, after Tim DeWitt left the band. Since the new album is more song-oriented, we also see vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos take a more central role. Her vocal parts come closer to melodies you can sing along with, front and center in the mix, like on the second single, “MindKilla”. But really the band’s strength remains the masterful weaving of the vocal parts into the thickly layered slab of synths, bass, and percussion, so that everything coheres. Instrumentally, the album is synth-heavy; there are less obvious guitar parts than on St. Dymphna, which had nice reggae influenced guitar interludes. Here the guitar is more heavily processed. Where the last album saw Gang Gang playing more with hip-hop and electronic-influenced styles, now they tilt strongly towards world music for inspiration.
The sequencing of the album is seamless, a major strength of the group on St. Dymphna as well. Three transitional tracks, marked with infinity signs, suture the four major phases of the album: the album warms up slowly on the 11-minute opener and epic first single, “Glass Jar”, but quickly unleashes a frantic onslaught for a straight four songs of Eastern/Caribbean inflected rhythms before bringing it down with some reflective R&B and dreamy pop and finally closing out with a stomping percussive track.
“Glass Jar” perfectly stokes anticipation with swirling synths and rippling cymbals so that when the rhythm comes in and Bougatsos starts singing, despite the steadiness, it is incredibly climactic. The long build and soaring culmination produce a light-headedness that is the welcome dominant feeling of the rest of the album. An interlude of yoga chanting leads us into “Adult Goth”, which has a staccato guitar riff and Bollywood percussion. Bougatsos’s voice is in the upper register, almost nasal, and climbs into the forefront of the track—she even toasts over the bridge. There is more room between the high and low end, so that the drums and bass reverberate out in rings under the melodies. Next, “Chinese High” picks up on the island feel, with a steel drum driven melody. The highlight of this track is the low and dirty bass drum that pulses throughout the song to give it a grinding feel.
The second single, the Dune referencing “MindKilla” combines jagged synths coming in at all ends with droning bass and a reggaeton beat for a dark feel. Still, “MindKilla” is as catchy as Gang Gang Dance gets and seems the obvious single for the album. Though it sticks out melodically, it is not the album’s highlight. Placed in the middle of the album, “MindKilla” actually brings down the hectic rush of songs into the more chilled out middle swath of songs. “Romance Layers”, a duet with Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip, is the dark horse of the album. It’s an almost note perfect sendup of ‘80s synth slow jams, but without a central vocal part. Think Prince but not nearly as monumental. What could be a dated sound in the synths is actually reinvigorated. The track works so well because it provides needed respite after the crazy rush of sensory overload.
The weakest song on the album is “Sacer”. Though Bougatsos has taken on a seemingly more concentrated role throughout the album, this song could be seen as a showcase of her vocals. But this is where I find her style going too far into the childlike squeaks of Björk-land. Luckily, however, “Thru and Thru” returns the album to its brilliance with a stomping track of Bollywood style percussion. This is the late night song that rises and falls like a second wind. It’s epically dramatic and complex, a fine way to close out.
Eye Contact is obviously a risky strategy in its attempt to encompass everything. The album opens with the words, “I can hear everything. It’s everything time” and goes out with a strange, warped injunction, “Live forever.” But Gang Gang Dance pulls off the gamble with a huge payoff. The group is a long-awaited fulfillment of the promise of early postpunk worldbeat like the Slits (in fact Bougatsos could be heir to Ari Up). Gang Gang updates and rounds out this sound to make it eminently pertinent and exciting. Eye Contact solidifies the group’s heavyweight majesty. Gang Gang Dance injects pop music with new life, leading the quest for newer sounds from ageless sources and mixing it all together in a critically irresistible way.