Downtown Singapore: Don’t Let Your Guard Down

[22 February 2006]

By Winston Kung

Note to all aspiring young bucks out there who dream of rock stardom: keep going. You’ll write great songs. But you’ll also write some crappy songs, too. It’s a law of nature, and the only exception comes if you’re the Stone Roses in 1990; otherwise, just accept the fact. Now, the trick here is to minimize the impact of those crappy songs by: 1) Writing more and more great songs to cover them up or, if that’s not an option, 2) Putting the crappy songs in obscure parts of the album, where they can contrast against and emphasize the great songs.

Whatever you do, don’t frontload your album with the crap.

That is precisely the cardinal sin here committed by Downtown Singapore, the latest metal-emo-blend band (think Funeral for a Friend, Fall Out Boy) to arise from the Washington D.C. post-hardcore scene. Right from the get-go, the kids drop three terrible tracks to start the CD: “The Charm Beneath Tradition”, “What She Said”, and “Choir Boy” combine to form the most purely annoying trio of songs in a long while. Now, as a critic, I realize that a certain element of the emo-punk-metal genre is inseparably tied to whiny, jagged vocals accompanied by jagged, energized riffs. And if one isn’t in the right state of mind to listen to that kind of music, it will all sound intolerable. But done correctly, it can deliver some of the tightest, catchiest, most energetic stuff rock can offer: see Jimmy Eat World.

The problem is that there seems to be a perfect storm of flaws working in these three opening songs—a pretentious shot at “epic”-ness, overdone production, clumsily inane lyrics—that combine together to push them over the top (bottom?) in terms of listener irritation. By the time the CD hits its nadir in third track “Choir Boy”, frontman Jerry Scott is crooning about how “she moves like the devil/ and knows what is evil” (for God’s sake, man, the two words might look like it, but they don’t rhyme!), and listeners are getting ready to turn off their speakers.

Fortunately, after such a crash-and-burn start, the band starts getting its act together. “Gator Sweat” shows crunchy energy with a wicked guitar riff crashing down the minor scale. “Pose Up” displays the aforementioned tightness and catchiness associated with emo-punk, declaring itself as easily the best song on the CD and a strong contender for first single, as well as an indication of the potential Downtown Singapore might have. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that after such a terrible start, the lyrics to “Pose Up” show a propensity for rebounding: “It’s okay/ We can only go up from here!”

Perhaps the most impressive highlight is “Teresa Rizal”, which goes beyond the derivate forms of their genre that Downtown Singapore slavishly follow and employ a little bit of avant-garde ambience, producing a pretty sound that, while too clumsy to actually be a great song, may provide some inspiration to their emo-punk peers.

But these bright spots can’t cover up the fact that, for the most part, Downtown Singapore simply sounds like Jimmy Eat World without the hooks (an extended analogy could be steak without the meat). Lyrically, they lack any skill at hitting the heartstrings and creating enchanted moments. Instead, they consistently employ combative language—most notably in title track “Don’t Let Your Guard Down”—and implore listeners to “please don’t give up the fight”. The fight against what? Hormones? Girls? The Man? Aliens? It’s too vague to tell, and blundering sloganeering in songs like “People for the Ethical” display zero wit or subtlety. Nightmare visions of Stupid America updating their Myspaces with adoration for the “uBeRDeEP LyRiX – fUK wALMaRT!” begin to float around.

Drawing out each sung word over a mayhemic background of crashing arpeggios isn’t the same as fashioning a good song. Until Downtown Singapore realizes that, it’s unlikely their music will ever move beyond mediocrity.

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