Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell

[22 April 2008]

By Ross Langager

For a debut so long on anticipation, Tokyo Police Club’s Elephant Shell is short on a lot of things: short on inspiration, short on original character, short on creative spontaneity, and, well, just short. Clocking in at a terse 28 minutes, it’s about as fleshed-out and developed as a single sitcom episode (and not on HBO, either). There is, of course, nothing wrong with the whole brevity thing, if you’re into it, and this suburban Toronto foursome has a good deal invested in brevity.

The soul of wit it may be, but brevity is a subtle knife. When only one of your songs lasts longer than three minutes, you’ve got a miniscule window of time to make an impression. Tokyo Police Club spend at least half to two-thirds of nearly every song crafting a painstaking simulacrum of every Interpol song ever recorded, leaving a scant slice of seconds to carve out a niche for themselves. This remaining portion is taken up by an uneven series of stabs at distinction, some of which strike a chord but most of which ring hollow.

Very little about the band threatens to distinguish itself as truly interesting, generally speaking. The rhythm occasionally builds up some irresistible inertia, but is entirely too precise to achieve the pace of edgy abandon it strives for. Guitarist Josh Hook layers resonant but gutless effects over lead lines that the Strokes’ Nick Valensi did much better seven years ago. Dave Monks’ voice hints at brainy, post-puberty sensitivity; he launches his vowels like paper boats on a park pond. But his vocalizations skew further towards detachment than towards emotional engagement; one gets the distinct impression that he’s singing more to the microphone than to anyone beyond it. The placeholder lyrics don’t give him nearly enough opportunity to emote anyway. In “Listen to the Math”, he opines, “If I am the joke / you’re the punchline”; such glib clichés abound.

It’s too bad Tokyo Police Club tends to be so enmeshed in indie generica, because there are decent ideas struggling to be free now and then. The album’s best tracks break from the smothering exactness that makes most of its songs feel indistinguishable. “The Harrowing Adventures Of…” leaves out the usual guitar razor traps, instead deploying xylophone, bass-drum stomps, acoustic strums, sympathetic strings, and the least calculated handclaps on the record in a manner that is striking in contrast to the rest of the stew. “Your English Is Good” shakes off its initial similarities to fellow Canadian dance-rockers Hot Hot Heat with some earned momentum and shout-alongs actually worth shouting along to. The former is genuinely charming, and the latter is unabashedly fun. Considering the lack of these qualities elsewhere on Elephant Shell, they are most welcome in these cases.

Still, the album doesn’t ever feel genuinely exciting. Since this is exactly what the band is aiming for, it’s a problem. They don’t do nearly enough with the brief window of opportunity they have afforded themselves, and seem too fashionably pent-up to take that key leap of faith beyond the terra firma of their dominant influences in the foreseeable future. In “Sixties Remake”, Monks sings, “you’ve got nerve / but we’ve got tact”, and I can’t help but feel that Tokyo Police Club would be more worthy of their hype if that statement of qualities was reversed.

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