[8 January 2007]
Rarely has a band name been so unerringly accurate. If you’ve heard of Under the Influence of Giants, it’s probably because you’ve encountered their debut single, “Mama’s Room”, on rotation on MTV2 or your local AOR station. That song presents a fairly representative cross-section of the group’s sound: clipped, dancefloor-ready percussion, driving bass, sparse guitar and light-rock orchestral flourishes, leavened throughout by a gratingly familiar falsetto vocal line. I say familiar because, well, you’d be hard pressed to hear “Mama’s Room” and not immediately be reminded of the Bee-Gees. Under the influence of giants, indeed.
Perhaps it isn’t lead vocalist Aaron Bruno’s fault that he is such a dead-ringer for the brothers Gibb. It doesn’t help matters that the producers insist on swaddling the vocal lines in the kind of sticky-sweet stacked harmonies with which the Bee-Gees made their fame. It would be one thing if the band didn’t seem like they were going out of their way, on song after song, to write songs and create arrangements specifically designed to place Bruno’s voice in a startlingly retro context. It perhaps says something about the state of contemporary rock that such a retro turn doesn’t sound particularly out of place. In many ways, Under the Influence of Giants is a thoroughly contemporary group: the record has the kind of shiny exterior that listeners have come to expect from High Quality Rock Product in the year 2006. Funk basslines and disco beats have been “back” for years; there have even been sporadic appearances of horn sections. The individual ingredients may seem modern, but the overall effect is unequivocally a pastiche, a modern updating of some very old templates.
And it’s not even as if they’re the first people to do so in recent years. Rock has long since made peace with funk and dance, but not quite with the specific sound of disco: it’s OK to be down with the Gang of Four and New Order and Parliament, but not so much Donna Summer. There’s been something of a neo-disco revival in the underground these last few years, spearheaded by labels like Gomma, but the only mainstream group to embrace the sound has been the Scissor Sisters. Looking at things from the perspective of a hit-hungry record company, it’s easy to see the appeal of Under the Influence of Giants: they sound just like the Scissor Sisters, only without the queer overtones that have (arguably) kept the band from hitting the big time in the United States (even after they’ve become huge everywhere else).
Perhaps I should rephrase that: they sound just like the Scissor Sisters, only without any of the energy and charm, sort of like how the Black Crowes sound just like the early ‘70s Rolling Stones, if the early ‘70s Rolling Stones sucked. Is that harsh? Perhaps. But once you get past the generally agreeable, if relentlessly imitative “Mama’s Room”, you’re stuck with an album of incredibly boring and uninspired formulaic retro crap. You want a slower power ballad, a la “How Deep Is Your Love”, with some John Bonham drumming thrown in? “Stay Illogical” will certainly fit the bill. How about an uptempo rocker that brings to mind Pulp’s “Disco 2000” without any of the wit? “In The Clouds” is the track for you. They’ve even got a downbeat, slightly expansive closing track, incorporating extended breakbeats and synthesizer riffs, “Meaningless Love”.
It would be an exaggeration to call Under the Influence of Giants a bad band, because there’s just not enough substance here to qualify as either bad or good. Their debut is so derivative that the overall effect is little more substantial than gossamer. They have a keen grasp of their influences, but that’s about it. Like Jet, they do what they do well enough, but there’s no reason why anyone should care.