[10 April 2012]
We like it when families or lovers sing together. The Carter Family, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Oasis, the White Stripes, Handsome Furs, Arcade Fire – the real drama we read about, or the tension and passion we could just be imagining, can give the music a heightened sense of intimacy and intensity. Blood or romance can become guarantees of authentic connection between our stars. For fans of the Pixies and Black Francis, this phenomenon perhaps works a little on his new project Grand Duchy, a band that he and his wife Violet Clark have formed together. Some of Francis’s best work has been about alienation and isolation, the pain of not being able to communicate. To find such a legendarily tortured voice singing beside his partner’s, then, might make for a pleasing resolution.
Extra-musical intrigue aside, a handful of the numbers on Grand Duchy’s second album, Let the People Speak, are fun and interesting, and the band’s unique marriage of slick, synth-heavy electropop and dark folk-rock can be a happy one. Standout track “Geode” stumbles through a few distinct feels – the chorus, where Clark’s punkish drawl lilts ahead of a locked-down beat, being a highlight. “Dark Sparkles and the Beat”, too, is a stylistic free-for-all, a melancholic instrumental eventually winding its way to a danceable rock-out. And “Silver Boys” is infectious; Clark harmonizes with her husband in a jagged but buoyant sing-along. It’s a treat – almost like how mash-ups worked when they did work (“Pixies Vs. Depeche Mode”?) – to get to hear Francis backed by a wall of ’80s pop texture, as he sometimes is here. And Clark, her voice strong and saucy, more than holds her own.
Glitter, glam, and darkness are thematic motifs; Grand Duchy sings about violent love scenes, Warhol’s Factory, hedonistic partying, and actors, and the sparkle-noir collage of genres works well for the journey. I think we’re left a little underwhelmed in the lyrics department, though. “Desperate and low, desperate and low / It’s terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible / Go get the whiteout / Get the whiteout,” Clark sings on “White Out”. Or, “Let’s take the tea off the coaster / Let’s ride the rail rollercoaster / Let’s jam the knife into the toaster,” on “ROTC”. Sound and groove seem to have been the priority here, not story-telling or poetry.
But Phoenix DJ Jonathan L, a narrator of sorts, guides us through. He improvises (or appears to) analysis after each song, which often turns into non sequitur, and he’s pretty funny: “A delightfully torturous song. Hummingbirds are humming, and [he chuckles] any song that has the word ‘soiree’ … has got me. It just kicks my ass,” he says after “ROTC”. This was a nice choice. Maybe he comically undercuts the democratic aspirations of the album’s title, also urging us to forget poetry and just let the tunes do their thing.
Let the People Speak is worth a listen. It can feel a little meandering, and a couple of the more “organically” arranged pieces seem out of place. Still, could be a nice soundtrack for a long drive that is not without some pleasant surprises.