[13 September 2011]
Live albums are a tricky thing to review for a few reasons. For one, they can run the gamut of career-defining moments (the Allmans at Fillmore, the Who at Leeds, Jacques Brel’s Olympia ‘64) or they can embarrassingly strip back the veneer of an otherwise beloved band (like most of the official live albums the Stones have put out) or can even be a musical tumor that should never, ever have seen the light of day (Having Fun With Elvis on Stage).
The good news is that White Lies’ live EP from the iTunes Festival is not the latter. The bad news is that it isn’t the former either. The mediocre news is that this is a very mediocre little release. It avoids being either good or bad by being completely unnecessary. And that lack of necessity hinges on the second main problem with live albums: How do you get people to re-pay for songs they presumably already own on the studio albums? Some groups pull it off by reputation of being masters of their instruments, jamming on stage with an energy that cannot be properly captured in the studio. The risk is that not every group is made up of virtuoso instrumentalists. This is most definitely the case with White Lies. As they draw their main inspiration from the goth-synth movements of the mid-1980s, a genre that never focused on musical prowess, there isn’t much for them to show off. In fact, this genre draws quite a bit from minimalism; basslines rarely stray from root notes, and pedal points play a large part in the keyboard work. Listening to this version of ‘Death’ and especially ‘A Place to Hide’, it felt like that first chord on the keyboard that introduces both songs would go on forever. I’ll let you decide whether or not that’s a good thing. For me, it’s an unnecessary, unpleasant drone. I need a little more than the bare minimum of musical expression.
Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to issue this EP. The performances do not stack up against their studio counterparts for a number of reasons. The vocals, while good for the most part, are occasionally flat and/or strained. The actual tone of the instruments is fine; the bass and kick drum are thick and thumpy like they should be. The snare and cymbals, however, feel a little distant. And for me, the worst tone offender is the one most prevalent throughout all the songs: those cheesy sounding synthesizers. There were parts in each song where I could close my eyes and pretend I was a kid again, rushing home from school and playing Final Fantasy on my Super Nintendo. A nice memory, yes, but not something I want to feel in the context of a supposedly serious rock band. This kind of synth sound is horribly outdated, but since these guys are going for a sound that is outdated, they have to use these tools to achieve that. The synth tone is probably meant to evoke something akin to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” but comes off like a reminder of countless terrible new wave bands that popped up in the years after Ian Curtis’ death (Part of me wonders if, had he lived, seeing Flock of Seagulls would have driven him to suicide anyway.) So the heavy synth infatuation is a personal point of contention for me. If you like it, you can disregard that from my review.
The songs themselves are not my cup of tea. I really don’t enjoy comparing bands to other, earlier bands, but these guys wear their influences so heavily that they got signed to the same label as The Cure. Come to think of it, singer Harry McVeigh actually sounds a little like Robert Smith when singing in his higher register. When I said earlier that they come from the goth world, I certainly wasn’t talking about the Birthday Party or Bauhaus; I was talking more about Echo & The Bunnymen and mid-1980s Cure—when they were first becoming more consistently tuneful but still rather mopey. That’s the sort of approach the White Lies take to songwriting, where everything is romanticized and melodramatic, or as they put it in “Death”: “Everything has got to be love or death”. A very teenager-ish view of the world, when in the years before adult responsibility kicks in, even the smallest problem resembles armageddon. Most every line of these songs (and especially this particular one) seem to reflect this sophomoric view of being trapped and of one’s existence having little bearing on the world: “Floating neither up or down / I wonder when I hit the ground / Will the earth beneath my body shake, cast your sleeping hearts awake?” A somewhat over-the-top way to elucidate isolation and loneliness, but I guess it’s something we’ve all felt at one point or another. It’s a sentiment married to a surprisingly upbeat major key rock song, with a similarly depressing refrain of “Yes, this fear’s got a hold one me”. I have to admit, even though it isn’t my kind of music and isn’t really saying anything new, it’s a catchy tune.
The rest of the songs aren’t quite as good, and the band must know this since “Death” closes the EP. Opener “A Place to Hide” explodes the same lyrical trends to an extreme, invoking judgement day and storms at separate points but otherwise serving as a vague plaint. The lack of diversity in the lyrics—coupled with the lack of diversity in the music—is very boring. In popular music, it is very difficult to hold one’s attention over the course of a three-minute pop song. Having six songs that essentially say the same thing six times in a row and holding the listener in rapt repose is a difficult task, one that really only succeeds in the case of “Death”. And even though “E.S.T” and “Streetlights” are a bit darker than the rest, they don’t possess strong enough melodies to make a worthwhile listen.
In conclusion, this EP seems more like a promotional tool for their full studio albums (drawing three songs from each of their LPs) than an actual live album, which is fine. If you are a fan of the group then this review will probably not change your mind, and you will probably enjoy this EP, even though it won’t take the place of either the studio albums or actually seeing the band in concert. If you are not a fan, this is unlikely to convert you. If you are on the fence or you have never heard of the group, this isn’t a very good introduction, as the production and performances are merely average rather than stellar. If you really want to introduce yourselves to White Lies, check out a few of their singles and go from there, but don’t bother with this EP.