[28 August 2012]
I suppose the real goal of a “supergroup”, in a critical sense, is to release an album so fresh and so solid on its own that it makes mentioning the new group’s affiliated acts unnecessary. So, Electronic would rock so hard that I wouldn’t need to write about New Order or the Smiths, or Monsters of Folk would make such transcendent music that I’d forget all about My Morning Jacket or Bright Eyes for the length of an album (would that I could, on that one). A quick thumb-through of your local record store’s used bins should reveal how that version of history didn’t, you know, work out. When Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner, twin purveyors of a certain kind of raw-throated guitar swagger increasingly on the marginal ends of the indie rock spectrum these days, came together with Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) to form Divine Fits earlier this year, they were betting against the odds. But since Daniel is the forgotten workhorse hero of the last 20 years in guitar music—see how many Spoon records you love, and then see how many Spoon records usually make those year-end top ten lists—and Boeckner is the best candidate for carrying his torch, both as MVP in Wolf Parade and co-leader of the perennially underrated and now sorely missed Handsome Furs, they seemed as likely as anyone to beat the house.
But you see how I’ve already spent more than a few words on these dudes’ other beloved bands. Divine Fits meets somewhere in the middle between Handsome Furs’ chilly electro-drama and Spoon’s more rhythm-oriented, quieter cuts. In other words, if you’re looking for the windmilling Boeckner of “This Heart’s on Fire” or the strutting Daniel of “The Fitted Shirt,” you won’t find much occasion to wave your lighter in the air. That’s the biggest immediate disappointment of A Thing Called Divine Fits, and maybe it’s on me—these guys aren’t obligated to write anthems if they don’t want to, I know. But then wouldn’t you rather watch Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash than in the New York City Marathon?
Things start off well enough, with Boeckner’s “My Love Is Real” sounding like a clean jump from Sound Kapital with its sultry tension and dry production, while Daniel’s “Flaggin a Ride” showcases the album’s most successful confluence of its co-writers’ influences, bursts of jagged guitar stabbing at a steady bass groove in a way that recalls Spoon and Handsome Furs without seeming like a pastiche. Both Daniel and Boeckner’s voices show up in all their emotive, appealingly unpolished glory here, and their vocal performances are consistently the most enjoyable element of the record. It’s a thrill to hear Daniel’s craggy take come in halfway through “Baby Get Worse” after listening to Boeckner’s confident yelp weave through the earlier verse. In seamless moments like that, Divine Fits seem both heaven sent and an utterly inevitable collaboration.
Elsewhere, though, the band’s commitment to minimalism makes some of these cuts sound more like demos than fully realized songs on their own. Boeckner’s acoustic “Civilian Stripes,” with the most indelible sing-along melody of the record, begs to be fleshed out with drums and distortion, but it never takes off. Daniel’s “Like Ice Cream” shares its problems with Transference, remembering to create a groove but forgetting to do much else. Album closer “Neapolitans,” with its near-absence of vocals, spurts and stutters without gelling into anything memorable at all. The band clearly knows how to use repetition and restraint to its advantage—check “The Salton Sea” and its Kraut-lite keys, bouncing into your brain through sheer strength of will. Those successes make the half-hearted misses scattered throughout the album more frustrating by comparison.
With all the firepower this trio has at its disposal, it’s surprising to find Divine Fits’ best song in a cover. Together, Boeckner and Daniel turn the Boys Next Door’s (later the Birthday Party) stately “Shivers” into a Girls Can Tell b-side, with Daniel replacing Nick Cave’s croon with pure rock ‘n’ roll grit and the band stripping the track down to its essentials. And since the b-sides for Girls Can Tell would be better than the A-sides in 90 percent of record collections everywhere, “Shivers” represents the potential of Divine Fits at its most effective. They’re not there yet, but with Boeckner’s insistence that the group will be the primary focus of its members for the foreseeable future, they might just get it right next time.