The Tough Alliance: The New School

[22 September 2008]

By Dan Raper

Maybe it’s a case of trying to dig too deeply, but something in the Tough Alliance’s act feels manipulative, and that’s difficult to fully embrace. Like a Dave Eggers memoir, they rebut all criticism before it occurs, making it frustrating to react to their music on an intellectual level. This is only partly through their music. In an interview with Pitchfork last year, the group wrote, “we fly high above [the “lazy and boring” media’s] simple expectations and stereotypes.” The trouble for me is that these guys seem so completely wrapped up in themselves and their act that it’s difficult for a listener to piece together their random assertions and posturing into a coherent, approachable position. We can’t make a judgement about it because it purposefully makes no sense.

Is the group trying to tell us that we should just be listening to their sweet electropop for the simple pleasures it affords? If so, then why all the anti-performance rhetoric? Truth is, on their 2005 debut, which is finally now seeing a Stateside release (expanded with the inclusion of some of their early EPs), the Swedish group demonstrated little of their combative artistic persona. In fact, their synth-pop is almost, but not quite, stereotypical itself, reliant on the kind of major melodies that Vengaboys might have come up with back in the day. In this sense The New School shares A New Chance’s subtly-twisted sincerity. It seems at times to hedge bets between straightforward pop and ironic separatist art. But the band predictably expanded ambitions on their second album, employing a wider array of instruments and grabbing parts from a wider variety of influences, which made for a more complete, more varied sound.

Much has been made of the group’s camaraderie with similar Service artists like Air France and even Jens Lekman (with whom the group shares more of an adventurous spirit than any recognisable sound), but you realise after listening to their debut that there are other Swedish pop artists who have obviously influenced the duo. One is Kleerup, whose debut solo album from this year (after a long history of prominence as a producer) shows a consummate mastery of the language of synth-pop (he’s capable of crafting pieces that sound more polished and complete than most of The Tough Alliance’s songs). Another is a group called the Legends, which is really one man, Johan Angergård, whose 2007 album Facts and Figures shares The New School’s full-throated pop regalia.

The New School relies on this bubbly exuberance, sometimes to the exclusion of compelling melodies. Perhaps disposability’s something closer to a theme (it comes up a few times over the course of the album), which becomes most obvious on “Koka-Kola Veins”, an early hit for the band that now sounds somewhat dated. “This is our jihad, if you know what we mean,” Burglund declares, before the chorus runs: “We’ve got Coca Cola veins, we don’t know our names … we don’t use our brains / Blah blah blah”. Unfortunately, that emptiness is less compelling a few years later, after all manner of mainstream pop artists have turned electro instrumentation into a familiar and even sweeter confection.

At the same time, The New School shows the germination of the group’s subsequently developed pop sophistication. The echoing/cracking asceticism of “I’ll Be Right There” or unashamed use of horns on “Take No Heroes” (momentarily reminiscent of OutKast) show us musicians interested in a wide array of sounds and textures. And rather than backing away from it, the Tough Alliance revels in the raw edge of Eric Burglund’s voice, choosing effects that heighten it to good effect. “The New School”, for example, sounds thrown-together with a perfect blend of abandon and studio craft; it simultaneously sets itself up in apposition (“Break the rules … We’ll never fall in line”) and complete conformity (“Let’s move to the dancefloor”).  “In the Kitchen” shares a simplicity of power-chord-backed three-chord harmony with Blink 182’s power pop, though painted up entirely Technicolor, with post-hip hop syncopations.

And yet the group’s off-the-stereo presence lends itself to over-analysis, which may be ultimately the thing that takes most away from this otherwise fairly impressive debut. Perhaps they brought it on themselves: all their talk of “sincerity” and “spectacle” has a ring of nonsense to it, precisely because in carrying on the way they do, the group is engaging in precisely the kind of empty pop façade that they purportedly abhors. But does it really matter? If you heard “Neo Violence” or “Something Special” on the radio, would you care that the guys behind the music construct vast artifices of agitpop, unabashedly lip-synching at their live shows and re-tooling some of the most gauche elements of yesterday’s Top 40 dance hits into brightfield optimism? Up against the buzzy synth melodies and Balearic atmospherics, that nonsense hardly seems to matter.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-tough-alliance-the-new-school/