[11 February 2014]
A long, long time ago, Johnny Lydon famously declared “Rock and roll is over, don’t you understand?” While millions of hip hop fans must disagree, it’s hard to deny the ol’ coot was on to something. Pretty much every form of pop music seems to reference another form; it’s no accident that two of last year’s “songs of the summer” borrowed heavily from Marvin Gaye and Chic respectively, and a third appropriated the kick of the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight”.
But if there’s nothing new under the sun, at least our forefathers left around a lot of ore, and The Casket Girls do some pretty impressive mining with True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, their second album of fuzzy, electronic darkwave pop. Most of these tracks feature intensely reverbed 808 drums and super-heavy buzzsaw synth drones, and all of them put the oddly sweet, multi-tracked, sparrow-faced vocals of Phaedra and Elsa Greene right out front. The result is the sort of spaced-out dance stuff that Laura Palmer probably grooved to in her underground bars, or perhaps what Jame Gumb put on when he tired of “Goodbye Horses” (come to think of it, all these references are post-Pistols; in your face, Johnny). You know how every John Hughes soundtrack has that one left-field new-wave song in the middle of the latter half? The Casket Girls turned that song into an album.
That isn’t a bad thing, of course—those were the songs most likely to make it onto our favorite mixtapes. In fact, each song on True Love Kills the Fairy Tale is compelling and loaded with buzz appeal. The album kicks off with “Same Side”, and the breathy vocals—detached but oddly welcoming—make the racket inclusive, even warm. “Day to Day” has an uneasy groove that does a nice job of keeping the listener slightly off-balance. And “Chemical Dizzy” builds on that simple Casio groove and a great fuzzy bassline with appropriately trippy lyrics: “What came first, the count or the number / Chemical dizzy love will put you under / Animal magnetism to the thunder / What came first, the sun or the summer.” Groovy, baby.
After 15 minutes of this, though, a curious thing happens—the songs begin to blend into one mid-tempo pile of sound. All the nursery-rhyme melodies and vaguely ominous lyrics (“there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded heart”) are thrown against such an uncompromising formula of sound that it almost dares you to stay engaged. Imagine that scene in the R-rated thriller where our heroine finds herself in one of those shadowy, blue-light underground clubs filled with dangerous sex and tantalizing peeks at decadence. Got it? Well, any one of these tracks would make a fine soundtrack to that scene. And as impressive as that is, what the album lacks is any variation that shakes up the kohl-smeared, taffeta-coated, codeine-paced goth offered up by the Casket Girls. When the groove isn’t hypnotizing you, it sort of settles into your background.
But if you stay engaged, you’re in for some treats. “Ashes and Embers” is alive and urgent, combining a fascinatingly creepy solipsism (“Isn’t it a waste of time / Pretending there’s a reason to / Play the card of someone who / Isn’t you?”) with swirling psychedelic imagery and dreamy fuzz. The title track allows the background vocal to sound passionate, even urgent, providing a wonderful contrast to the wide-eyed lead, and the hypnotic beat lingers like it’s playing over the credits to the latest Richard Kelly flick.
The Casket Girls are no strangers to the value of a great hook, as they prove with “Holding You Back”, which sounds like the lost lovechild of Bauhaus and the Cocteau Twins (if any cut deserves to be a single, it’s this one). And they’re not afraid to be life-affirming, even thoughtful, as attested by the lovely lyrics of “The Chase” (“I’ve got a feeling / That we’re missing / Something plain as day / Just like the stars we’re wishing on”). But again—the recipe almost never changes, so each track feels like an installment. You can give True Love Kills the Fairy Tale several spins and still not remember which lilting melody goes with which crashing, reverby drum-fuzz-and-synth lick.
Still, there’s something undeniably appealing here, especially if you’re as much a fan of darkwave as the Greene sisters and mastermind Ryan Graveface must be. So what if they’re a little too indebted to their signature sound and image? If the Casket Girls are trying a little hard to be the strange, oddly sexy girls hiding in the basements of Silent Hill (and they are—check out their precious bio on their Facebook page), they provide enough groovy pleasure to get you through the wee hours of your next Halloween party. Once everyone has gone home, that is.