[8 January 2006]
So it’s 2006, and now that the mainstream seems to have caught up to the dance-punk or post-punk or post-post-punk or whatever you want to call it scene, it’s time to start calling for its death knell. Critical backlash against the so-called garage revival happened as soon as all the kids started imitating Nuggets tracks and claiming a Detroit lineage, and now that all the young bands seem be cutting their bangs diagonally and wearing suits to gigs, the signs are imminent that we’re fast approaching critical mass and, ultimately, apathy.
But while Franz Ferdinand and the Killers have probably reaped the most reward in the past couple of years, the real action was happening in New York around the turn of the century, when bands like the Rapture and Interpol were first reinvigorating interest in the UK sound of 1979. And if a 2006 debut from We Are Scientists seems like late-in-the-game bandwagon hopping, it’s at least worth noting that they formed in 2000 and they joined the New York scene in 2001, playing at home and abroad with their peers. Of course, the point might legitimately be raised that if they were worth the investment, someone would have snapped them up and released a debut sooner, but hey, they’ve paid their dues, and it is the story of many a band that it takes time to get noticed.
Still, as more and more people are inclined to scream in agony if they have to hear “Mr. Brightside” one more time, We Are Scientists have their work cut out for them at this late date. In effect, unless With Love and Squalor brings something new—or at least super-catchy—to the table, they’ll be buried faster than you can say Moving Units.
So does it? Yes and no. With Love and Squalor is pretty much everything you’ve come to expect from neo-post-punk music: disco beats, prominent basslines, and those ever-angular guitars, all playing under some clipped vocals that have a distinctly British cast to them. And yet, interspersed among the more-of-the-same is a sense of more recent rock history. Just when the new wave notes seem like they’re going to be predictable, you get a big wall of ‘90s alt-rock guitars from leader Keith Murray, and he breaks into some sustained-note, unaffected singing. The best part is that rather than sounding schizophrenic, it all blends together into some great, hooky moments.
You won’t hear it if all you stumble across is the album’s lead single, “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt”, which despite its Yellowman-nod title, is as straightforward a post-punk song as you’re likely to hear all year. It makes sense for Virgin to make this a signature track and capitalize on the musical moment, as it’s both catchy and brashly sexy with its “My body is your body / If you want to use my body / Go for it” chorus of crescendos—it’s insistent enough that it screams single. However, the song is hardly distinctive in its own right, except that it contains enough guitar bravado to connect it to more garage-oriented bands like Mando Diao. But We Are Scientists have more hints of early Black Rebel Motorcycle Club than the Hives. For example, while “This Scene Is Dead” starts off in clipped post-punk fashion, it’s driven forward by a big, chunky guitar chorus to match the song’s party-weary themes of alcoholic excess.
Not that We Are Scientists aren’t aware of their core sound or its place in the music scene. The sharply incisive “Inaction” actually has the cheek to question the indie scene, its behaviors, and the ability of a band to guide it to any useful direction, while “Cash Cow” seems to riff (literally) on Franz Ferdinand and the Cure before breaking into a melodic chorus about selling out to the musical flavor of the month. Self-awareness is great, but the problem with pointing it out is that it becomes an unresolved problem. Like many of their peers, We Are Scientists don’t really wind up with much to say, in spite of the influence of bands like Gang of Four, and therefore the music is always going to be the sonic equivalent of haute couture. Regardless, We Are Scientists play the fashionista pose as well as anyone else on “It’s a Hit” and “Lousy Reputation”, with Michael Tapper and Chris Cain proving themselves to be a solid rhythm section for the style, even as the pop aspirations of Murray as guitarist and vocalist keep the band from sinking into mediocrity, perhaps most obvious on the fabulous “The Great Escape”.
If there’s any criticism to be directly leveled at With Love and Squalor that isn’t simply about the scene it emerged from, it’s that it drags itself out for just a bit too long. The closing two tracks, “Worth the Wait” and “What’s the Word”, seem interchangeable at best for more reasons than just their alliterative similarities, and either or both could have been eliminated to make the disc a shorter, tighter collection of songs (an aspect of the old late ‘70s/early ‘80s that doesn’t seem to have made the transition to this revival age).
But as another voice in the suddenly crowded milieu of retro-minded indie rock bands, We Are Scientists debut with an album that’s strong for the scene, even if that scene may not survive much longer. With Love and Squalor has just enough variety to stand out from the pack, though probably not enough to unseat the popularity of current stars, or establish the band as a long-term presence. Like the better of their peers, We Are Scientists will either mutate or die, but in the here and now, there’s enough life left in this sound to enjoy it to the last.