[27 August 2007]
Prinzhorn Dance School, a boy/girl, post-everything duo from Brighton, England, are the latest art/music debate-stirrers being released on James Murphy’s DFA label. Seems Murphy’s hipster cred alone is enough to get the downtown kids salivating for these guys, but a sober listen to their music alone gives us a bit more of a pause.
Characterizations of the duo in the press have emphasized the disagreement, even between the band members themselves, over whether the group should be labeled a ‘band’ or an ‘art project’. True, Tobin Prinz used to be an art student and true, he was renting the art space where the first rehearsals for the band took place. But the band describes their genesis in frustration with the state of local music and fascination with pure sound –- drums, bass -– and that’s music. And maybe all the on-show arguing’s just a ruse to keep up the mystique of the band and fuel the art vs. music debate. Whatever the intention, we as a listening public have been presented with this CD of songs. They deserve to be judged on their merits as songs, rather than as little pieces of absurdist, deconstructionist art, right?
Musically, there’s hardly anything going on in Prinzhorn Dance School songs. Typically, the group constructs songs out of, at most, three elements: a spare, clean, simple drum-beat; a bass line that oscillates between two or three notes; and fashionably disaffected vocal lines that are somewhere between high poetry and lazy allusion. Suzi Horn, the group’s other member, has described it as “hard work” for the listener, their music. It’s not. A pair of songs, “Hamworthy Sports and Leisure Centre” and “Lawyers Water Jug”, are illustrative. The first charts a depressing evening listening to a band at a local sports club over an almost-hook. True, the significance of the experience doesn’t need to be directly spelled out to hold emotional power, but surely there must be a more evocative way of getting at it than to repeat “Hamworthy Sports and Leisure Centre / Is a sports leisure centre”. “Lawyers Water Jug”, in comparison, has the wherewithal to explain its lyrical conceit, and because of this simple opening up becomes one of the most successful songs on the album:
All the bands are just
All the songs are just
All the kids are just
There is a certain purity about this music; as mentioned above, the drums are crisp and clear, and there’s so little going on musically that each small idea seems weighed down with significance. At times, as on “Do You Know Your Butcher”, the group hints towards Fujiya & Miyagi’s whisper-core concept. That song, which explores the dissolution of small town values through imagery of brutality (“Blood on their hands / Fur on the floor”), uses a neat trick with silence, each time a different length, to keep throwing the listener off. But overall Prinzhorn Dance School are less often throwing the listener off and more often wrapping themselves up in lyrical allusions that are all insularity and of questionable significance.
So can you find meaning in the Prinzhorn Dance School as, as their name suggests, dance music? Certainly some early fans of the group promote it as such. But it’s hard to really conceive of something this slow and deliberate as dance, at least in the traditional sense. But chant-sing has been incorporated into plenty of electro groups over the past few years (take a listen to New Young Pony Club’s new album for comparison) so there’s at least that superficial link. And the songs’ repetitions may burrow into your head in a similar way as dance to create this oddly affecting state. “Black Bunker”, for instance, tackles menace in this way: the chant attempts to jump a minor third only to be dragged back down –- stuck, no way out. This is minimal music, but Prinzhorn Dance School isn’t making minimalism (in the electronica sense). There is very little direction in these songs: they exist, baffle, repeat, and end usually in less than three minutes.
As a whole, these 16 short songs are strangely oppressive when listened through. You get the feeling that if someone like Murphy could be corralled to expand and enliven these skeletons of songs, there might truly be some revelatory music to be experienced here. But as it stands Prinzhorn Dance School may indeed be more art (as in: a puzzling, self-esteem-lowering, both-enjoyable-and-tedious experience). And I’m no literary critic, but the poetry in the group’s lyrics often seems to hinge on simple dichotomy –- “Realer, Pretender”, “Eat, Sleep” –- and those are just the song titles. Obtuseness in a band is not necessarily a cause for dismissal. But until Prinzhorn Dance School expand their musical vocabulary to include harmony and development, they will necessarily find their audience limited to those with the patience (or the pretension) to trust that there’s something visionary about this spare, ascetic sound.