[28 September 2008]
The Fall would have to rank high on anybody’s list of bands impossible to imitate. Even if you got the right rumbly-clanking bass line, even if the drums were suitably claustrophobic and robotic, even if you found an arresting but meaningless phrase to repeat over and over, the fact remains: you are not Mark E. Smith. End of story. So, when I say that XX Teens come close, that’s not nothing. It’s a fairly remarkable accomplishment. It’s even more impressive since it may not be what they’re aiming for.
Welcome to Goon Island is the first full-length for this London-based, art-school-credentialed quintet, a barrage of stuttering, bass-buzzing beats; oblique, sometimes surreally funny lyrics; and stinging, minimalist guitars. That’s the basic recipe, but there is no shortage of added ingredients. You will also hear, at various intervals, a full-brass band, a 2 Tone saxophone, steel drums, syrupy harp arpeggios and a long monologue with peace activist Brian Haws. The phrase “anything goes” comes to mind.
This debut album reprises most of XX Teens’ early singles, “Round”, “Onkawara”, and “Darlin’” (but not “How to Reduce the Chances of Being a Terror Victim”), and there’s not a ringer in the bunch. “Round” is built on a skanky, caroming stop-start beat that might remind you of the Offspring’s “Keep ‘Em Separated” and topped with manic squiggles of synth and spooky sci-fi organ. Its mix of fun and eeriness fits like a glove with the subject matter, a mini-treatise on primitive religion. (Sample lyrics: “I found an old man who wanted me to roast animals for him / Beause he loved the smell of cooking”). It is barking mad, slyly funny, and you can dance to it (you can’t not dance to it). What more could you want?
“Darlin’”, with its weird mix of grunts, yelps, breakbeat drums, and a marching band brass section, is even better. It is possibly the least post-punk, least Fall-like song on the album, not just because of the calypso steel drum, but on grounds of overall straightforward enthusiasm.
A couple of the newer songs—“B-54” and “My Favourite Hat”—cut much closer to the cheap synths, mechanized funk bass, and monotone of the Fall. Both are quite enjoyable. “B-54” has a particularly fine aura of containment and menace at its start, and it opens up, eventually, into a shout-happy, guitar-bristling chorus that sounds nothing like the Fall. Still, you can’t listen to these songs without wanting to go back to what they remind you of. They come close but don’t quite transcend their influences.
Even if it’s not an instant classic, Welcome to Goon Island is a lot of fun, with its big booming drum cadences and excitable, yelp-prone voices. There’s a sense of adventure in the arrangements, a casual “why not” willingness to fiddle with trumpets and saxophones and other non-traditional instruments, and a sardonic intelligence in the lyrics. So what if a couple of the songs remind you of history’s greatest, maddest post-punk bands? You’d be thinking about the Fall sometime this week anyway, wouldn’t you?