[16 July 2002]
Pop Culture has a rule of 20s: take a pop phenomenon (music, book, movie, you name it) and in 20 years it stands a great chance of coming back. So—surprise—we’re in the midst of a massive ‘80s revival, where keyboards (which, except for dance music, were almost extinct in the grunge-saturated mid-‘90s) have come back to the forefront in music. I Am the World Trade Center, basically the project of Kindercore Records co-founder Dan Geller and vocalist Amy Dykes, are one of the most popular and most visible acts of this current wave of synth-pop revisionists (others include Freezepop, Lifestyle, and newer Bis).
The Tight Connection is I Am the World Trade Center’s second album, following their debut Out of the Loop, which was released just a year ago! Now HERE is a trend that needs to stay!. Much like many of their peers, they take the synth-pop aesthetic to the extreme; I Am the World Trade Center don’t use any instruments BUT synthesizers on this album. Geller puts together all of the arrangements, loops, samples, etc. on his laptop (which is rather amusingly pictured inside the album jacket, almost as if it’s considered a band member) and Dykes piles some mildly ethereal, girlish vocals on top of it all. That’s not much different from a band like Freezepop, who rely solely on the sonics of their Yamaha QY-70 and sound similarly flat on the course of the disc. And that’s of course the common drawback to these nuevo-synthers; most of them are so strict, so hardcore that they create soundscapes even more bland than the less interesting half of early ‘80s new wave. Sometimes this loses and confuses people. But there’s a difference between the authentically uninspired “vintage” synth-pop and the “inspired boredom” of these new bands. I’m sure that this sounds like a load of bull, but these new bands have history on their side and realize why new wave stays fun AND why it dated itself. And with that knowledge, many of them make entertaining if unremarkable records, sort of a “time capsule” that recreates old trends for fun and nothing more. What’s wrong with that?
Well, The Tight Connection, like almost any record fundamentally rooted in the past, can easily be compared to its predecessors. The most common (and most accurate) comparison is to Saint Etienne, whose lush dance soundscapes were more complex and calculated than anything by I Am the World Trade Center, even though there are notable sonic and vocal similarities: for one, Amy Dykes is a vocal dead-ringer for Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell. But once again—“meticulous” is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe the craftsmanship on a Saint Etienne record, while I Am the World Trade Center make records that sound glossy, superficial, plastiscene, and a little tossed-off (this is intentional, by the way, and I don’t mean any of it as a bad thing). Saint Etienne’s hooks are also sublime but very, very infectuous: some of them don’t reveal themselves until after dozens of listens.
The Tight Connection, however, is about surface and sound. The songwriting is almost intentionally thinner, as if the vocals were very much an afterthought to the bopping synthesizers that form the base of the songs. And Dykes’ vocals retain more of the detached boredom of ‘80s new wave than Cracknell’s, making her sound closer to Debbie Harry or even Nena (yes, really). In fact, I Am the World Trade Center do a very literal (though guitarless) cover of Blondie’s “Call Me” here—you’d swear it’s a karaoke version—as well as the more unconventional choice of the Stone Roses’ “Shoot You Down”. “Call Me” may have been too obvious a choice, really—since it’s no leap of logic to compare Dykes to Harry, listeners don’t need to be clubbed over the head with their similarities—but keep in mind again that I Am the World Trade Center are not to be taken fully seriously. This is a fun, lightweight side project. And it sounds like the ear candy that it is.
Now, with that, one might find it suspicious that this article has not yet analyzed the band’s name, which brings to mind the creepy images of last September 11th and the World Trade Center’s collapse. Inevitably, I Am the World Trade Center (who did choose their name long before September 11th, and, in my opinion, have no real reason to change it) will garner most of their attention from the media and listeners because of their name, and many of them will be shocked—shocked, I tell you!—that the band didn’t change their name out of respect for the victims. And most other reviews of The Tight Connection will probably mention this connection with a mixture of surprise and disgust in the opening few paragraphs. One particularly clueless reviewer said that “those looking for some sort of response to September 11 will doubtless be surprised by the group’s failure to address the tragedy in any way. In place of catharsis, I Am the World Trade Center offers up simple pop melodies sung with very little conviction over 1980s-style Casio electronica.” Uh, yeah. Since the band—who are really as much an art project as a pop band—have been thrust into a much brighter spotlight than expected or intended, there will undoubtedly be countless masses who don’t “get” them, people who think their name is a tacky, commercialistic play on a massive tragedy, and midwestern soccer moms will wonder “what this world has come to”. But I disagree with what our clueless reviewer stated; I Am the World Trade Center do not—and should not, even—have made a direct response to the September 11th attacks. That would be lying about what they are about, altering the concept of their art project to then pander to the masses and, in effect, that would be the greatest sell-out/cash-in that they could’ve possibly concocted. For I Am the World Trade Center to stick with their sound and put out a solid sophomore record is in line with George Dubya’s request for U.S citizens to go about our lives as normal, as opposed to if I Am the World Trade Center had named the album “Tribute to Heroes” and tossed in a cover of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Or something.