[23 October 2007]
I’ll set the scene: a new band appears out of nowhere with a hot single. Said single blazes up the indie music charts, becoming a critical fave and a blogger cause célèbre. For a month or two the band is hotter than hot, with a few choice remixes appearing on mixes from a number of notable international DJs, and a video buzzing up the YouTube rotation. And then, just as suddenly as they first appeared, the buzz fades to a dull murmur, the heat cools—the attentions of the blogosphere have moved onto something fresher and even more novel. The band releases an album some six months or a year after the furious success of their first single, but save for the one song that everyone loved six months back it’s not very good and no one pays much attention. This is the life expectancy of most modern indie bands.
You could be forgiven, therefore, for having written off New Young Pony Club in advance of having heard so much as a lick of their music. If ever there was a band destined to shine briefly and fade just as quickly under the modern calculus of hype and lowered expectations, it is them. They burst on the scene last year with two singles, “Get Lucky” (released March) and “Ice Cream” (September). The first was a qualified success, but the second became the monster, lighting up an enthusiastic response across the Internet and even appearing in a memorable Intel commercial. They waited a full year to release their first album (the disc in question). It hit the UK in July and the US at the end of August. By all rights said album should have faded instantly: a few of the tracks on the album have been around in one form or another for over a year, and that’s more than enough time for the novelty of most modern bands to fade completely. After all, weren’t these guys supposedly a part of the ill-conceived “New Rave” scene, alongside fellow buzz bands like the Klaxons and Hadouken!?
And yet a funny thing happened on the way to the ignominy of pop obscurity. New Young Pony Club have managed to record and release a debut record that surpassed all my (admittedly modest) expectations. Not only that, they’ve so thoroughly incinerated these expectations as to leave little doubt in my mind that this is the most impressive and assured debut record to come down the pike in many a year. You’d expect, not without some historical precedent, that the group would lean heavily on their big hit (“Ice Cream”), producing an album full of slavish imitations, or worse, go off in another direction entirely in order to prove their mettle as more than (ahem) one trick ponies. They do neither. Fantastic Playroom is both stylistically coherent and musically confident, with a swagger and determination that would not seem out of place on any group’s fifth or sixth. On a debut album, this kind of precocity is nigh miraculous.
I’ll say up front, “Ice Cream” is the weakest track on the album. “Ice Cream” is still a pretty good track, however, so that should tell you a little about the relative levels of quality on display. The sound here is classic new wave, hearkening back to the halcyon post-CBGBs days of Blondie and the Talking Heads’ best records. Especially the Talking Heads—if any group in the last thirty years can be said to have taken the ‘Heads seminal sophomore LP More Songs About Buildings and Food as their direct inspiration, it’s these guys. That’s hardly a bad thing: the Talking Heads have long been considered “important” and “influential” less for reasons relating to any actual evidence of influence than simply by dint of the fact that they were obviously a great band who seemed uniquely, ubiquitously of their moment in time. Removing them from the timeline would render a great part of what followed completely unintelligible, even if you’d be hard pressed to actually find any bands that directly built on the Talking Heads’ thorny foundation of confused sex, apolitical politics, and empathetic nihilism. Far easier to find bands that nicked bits and pieces of the Heads’ raw sound than who actually went the distance in attempting to untangle the group’s iconic, conflicted songwriting legacy.
Here, presented for your approval, is New Young Pony Club: singing songs about sex that seem less about the act than the anxiety that precedes and follows it, making dance beats less for celebration than confrontation. Examine, for instance, “Hiding on the Staircase”, a track with one of the most irrepressible grooves on the album, an African-inflected shuffle that recalls the shifting personal/political subtext of Fela Kuti. But what is the song actually about? As singer Tahita Bulmer’s lyrics make painfully clear, we’re discussing the perception of sex through the eyes of a child: “It’s the sound of revolution in the bedroom / But we know there’s nothing doing / Because we’re hiding on the staircase”. The image of a kid gaining precious, confused insight into the secret sexual world of adults is compelling, ambiguous territory explored to great effect by Rick Moody in his novel The Ice Storm, to name just one example. “It’s the sound of your floating inhibition / When you’re standing in the kitchen / And you know there’s something missing”—a child never sees the motivations behind adult misbehavior and marital trauma, but that doesn’t make it any less real for its effects on their lives.
And so it goes—there are only ten songs on the album, just about forty minutes’ worth of music, but every track is a thorny bramble disguised as a casually engrossing pop-dance hit. “The Bomb” examines the moment when martial metaphors of lovemaking break down under the examination of intimate politics: “Who took advantage and who was defenseless?” “Don’t test the moment when you break the sun”, Bulmer comands, laying unexpected emphasis on the seemingly light-hearted “bomb” metaphor that provides the song’s core image. The atomic combustion of lovemaking—is it a conquest? An acquiescence? “Don’t speak ‘cos your mind is amazing”: trying to put a fine point on ambiguous prerogatives that are better left unsaid. Linguistic communication is an inefficient and harmful gloss over deep and troubled waters—where have we seen that before? “I choose to believe you, I said before that I can’t / Because I’m not in love”—“I’m Not in Love”, David Byrne, 1978.
But all this would be beside the point if the music itself wasn’t so strong. Their approach to pop songwriting is endearingly minimal, in a way that brings to mind the likes of Spoon—this isn’t power pop, but it is definitely strong pop songwriting. Usually a track begins by laying down a strong groove, over which the sparing melodic elements are placed. No one player (with the possible exception of drummer Sarah Jones, upon whose shoulders the success of the entire album can truly be said to rest) stands out for any particular virtuosity. The bass and guitar (Igor Volk and Andy Spence, respectively) are content to play around each other—Spence playing minimal filigrees with the precision of a lost Funk Brother, allowing Volk to carry a large percentage of the melody. Foregrounding the bass guitar affords the melodies a lot more in the way of subtle surprise, snaking around the rhythm and revealing themselves gradually.
Everything works together: a track like “The Get Go” builds small from a forbidding rhythm, building on the interplay between Volk’s bass and Bulmer’s voice, creating a hypnotically repeating four-note motif that slowly absorbs the rest of the group. Eventually you notice that Lou Hayter’s massive keyboards have joined to harmonize with the bassline, and somewhere along the line Spence let loose with some righteously acidic Tom Verlaine-inspired guitar, but the transition from tight and concise to borderline epic is so subtle as to be nearly invisible.
That’s pretty much the case with the whole of Fantastic Playroom. At some point between the sardonic play-acting of “Get Lucky” and “Ice Cream”—putting on grown-up clothes and accepting the pretense of a bored vamp—the album opens up to reveal a much more ambiguous and rewarding reality. “F.A.N.”, poised penultimately near the album’s end, seems at first glance to be a stylistic homage to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (complete with a cipher of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s note-perfect Albert Collins impersonation)—but then, around two minutes in, the song slips into an intense bridge, inverting the rhythm and bassline to create a cathartic moment of clarity. Again, the inability to communicate on any meaningful level looms large over the music: “Ah, an era of information / Oh, when no one seems to know what’s going on” Bulmer begins, addressing her words towards the vague object of her amorous intentions (to whom she is a “F.A.N.”)—“You say that you mean something / But really you mean nothing”.
The music communicates with a clarity that belies Bulmer’s lyrical confusion and anxiety. The final track, “Tight Fit”, focuses on this dichotomy, deliberately juxtaposing a forbidding, funky bass groove against Bulmer’s most emotionally vulnerable performance yet. There’s a conscious division here, as Bulmer repeats the words “I’d make a mould of me to make a mockery”, later, “To take the half of me would wreck the symmetry”—torn between the impulses of her better angels, and the more quotidian impulses of physical release represented by the bass-heavy rhythm section, she is lost, bifurcated by circumstances. “I want to fit”, she pleads, before the song dissolves into a melancholy, mournful progression—a graceful, pretty voice (still Bulmer’s) singing “Let a little light fall on / Like to get a little gone” over and over again, a prayer for release, absolution, grace, oblivion? The music either can’t—or won’t—answer, refusing to resolve the conundrum. As in “F.A.N.”, the break introduces a conflicting melodic motif that promises some kind of emotional release through synthesis, but it’s ultimately an illusory impulse. The sexual netherworld of “Ice Cream” is neither particularly alluring nor particularly funny in the context of this kind of honest pleading.
Somewhere, the lines between sin and virtue got blurred—there’s an essential breakdown in communication, useless symbols floating through the space where people should be able to communicate. Playing up the sex, vamping the sardonic ice-queen, it all leads nowhere in particular—on the album’s very first track, “Get Lucky”, Bulmer states plainly her desire to “give you all [her] love”—but is it really just a postmodern come-on? Isn’t there something real being obscured by the put-on sensuality, just out of sight, the constant painful absence of meaning?
To say that these guys are good would, at this point, be a criminal understatement (and just a little bit fatuous at this point in the article). Perhaps it’s a testament to their ability that so many people mistook the arch, disaffected exterior of “Ice Cream” for the sum total of New Young Pony Club’s emotional palette. Fantastic Playroom is the kind of album that sneaks up on you, earning repeated listens by dint of solid grooves and hummable melodies, but continuing to reveal its subtle charms and thorny ambiguities long after you think the novelty half-life should have faded. This is an album about female sexuality by and for feminists, a rejoinder to all the mindless pop tarts cramming the charts that they needn’t check their brains at the door to be sexy, but conversely, a stark reminder that the line between sex and love is neither well-delineated nor easily bypassed. True communication is chimerical, especially when there are all these dirty little secrets like lust and fear knocking over the skeletons in our collective unconscious. The only thing that prevents Fantastic Playroom from being a wholly perfect creation is the simple fact that, as good as it is, this is still only their first album. With another couple discs like this under their belt, they could well become invincible.