[2 July 2008]
After dropping their major label debut, With Love & Squalor, hitting the road almost nonstop, and losing drummer Michael Tapper, We Are Scientists are back with Brain Thrust Mastery. But don’t break out your dancing shoes just yet. The band is now more focused on winning your heart and, unfortunately, the music suffers as a result.
What you heard on the debut is mostly gone here. The only remaining elements are some of the huge choruses and a taste of the band’s trademark swirling guitars. But this time around the hooks stand out more like a sore thumb than a break from the madness. Tracks like “Inaction” and “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” were poppy, but they were also dirty. That gritty, eager feeling has been replaced by something grander. Instead of kicking your ass with distorted guitars and a grooving rhythm section, you are hit with more refined, ‘80s inspired power-pop.
This change in style is similar to Bloc Party’s transformation from their heralded debut, Silent Alarm, to the more extravagant A Weekend in the City. And like Bloc Party, WAS’s new-wave/post-punk combination falls flat at times. The biggest similarity between the bands is this album’s lead single, “After Hours”, which comes across as a Bloc Party cover minus the British accent. Other tracks like “Lethal Enforcer”, although fun, sound overly familiar and dull. And then there’s “Let’s See It”, an otherwise strong track that is bogged down by a boring chorus full of “oohs” and over-the-top vocals. The band makes a slight return to its dance floor roots on “Dinosaurs” and “Chick Lit”, two of the album’s best. The bouncy drums and jangly guitar riffs are there, but it’s too little too late. That being said, though, “Chick Lit” is just too damn good. And it should prove to be a successful next single.
It’s not like this is the first time WAS have changed their sound, though. They self-released several EPs and a full-length that were much less organized and noticeably DIY. But the songs showed a progression to what was heard on With Love & Squalor. At the same time, those albums showed a band that was having fun, while Brain Thrust Mastery is more self-aware and focused primarily on (lost) love, like the ballad “Spoken For”.
From the YouTube videos I have seen, however, these songs, like those on With Love & Squalor, seem to hold up better in concert. I saw WAS before hearing any of their records and it would be an understatement to say I was blown away. The guys were pure entertainers. Guitarist/lead singer Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain’s onstage banter was flat-out hilarious and spot-on. And it all just got better once they started playing. Murray’s deafening guitar licks sounded perfect over Cain’s thumping bass while Tapper decimated his drumheads. While Tapper is obviously gone now, I am sure Cain and Murray continue to impress both comically and musically. Now if they could only translate that energy and fervor onto their albums.
Yet, to the band’s benefit, Brain Thrust Mastery contains a lot more variety than its predecessor, which, although enjoyable, blended together at times. This album’s danceable tracks, “Dinosaurs” and others, mix with ballads like “Spoken For” for a cohesive listen. And Murray and Cain’s songwriting has definitely improved. The problem is that these guys were just a lot more fun when they were filled with angst and sarcasm. Perhaps Tapper brought something to the creative table that is gone now, but we will just have to wait and hear what these two New York guys put out next.