The Russian Futurists’ fourth album is bright, sparkly and shiny, with the vocals pushed right to the forefront in a landscape of keyboard loops, block rocking beats, and gently plucked guitars.
There’s a by-now notorious chapter called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in Jennifer Egan’s recent and near-perfect novel A Visit From The Goon Squad that’s written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. The narrative of those slides deal in part with a 13-year-old boy named Lincoln who is infatuated with pauses in classic rock songs. He loops these pauses so that they last minutes, and ultimately dissects the nature of these breaks in popular song in conversations with his family. As his mother notes to his exasperated father (who doesn’t quite get the genus of his son’s preoccupation), “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
If Lincoln was a real person living in the here and now, he probably would have been infatuated with the start of the song “Golden Years” on the new Russian Futurists album The Weight’s on the Wheels. After exactly one second of keyboard vamps, everything falls away for approximately two seconds, before roaring back to glitchy life. If a lengthy rest in a song is meant to make you think that the end is nigh, “Golden Years” has you scratching your head wondering if something is truly done and over with before it’s even begun. It’s an audacious move, one that builds expectation for what’s to follow in even that briefest hiccup.
The pause in “Golden Years”, however, is something of a metaphor for fans who have been holding their breath waiting for Toronto’s Matthew Adam Hart, who is more or less the Russian Futurists (though he plays with a gaggle of backing musicians in a live context) to drop new product on record store shelves. To put a time valuation to that wait, it has been exactly five years since anything new has been released by the band. What’s more, that space you hear in “Golden Years” is the vacuum that the Russian Futurists appear to occupy in pop culture. I hit up a friend of mine living in Toronto on Facebook for his thoughts on the group, which is a bit of a local favourite for him, and, to him, the most interesting thing about the Russian Futurists is that even though they have toured with the likes of Caribou and Junior Boys, the Futurists haven’t found the relative fame and fortune in indie circles as these other quasi-electronica bands.
In the intervening years since the Russian Futurists’ last record of original material – a sort-of greatest hits package (if you can call it that given the artist’s relative obscurity) came out in 2006 – Hart has undergone some changes in a musical sense. While his earlier trifecta of albums from 2001’s The Method of Modern Love to 2005’s Our Thickness were generally lo-fi recordings made essentially in his bedroom, The Weight’s on the Wheels sees Hart enter a proper recording studio with noted producer Michael Musmanno (Outkast, Lilys, Arrested Development). As a result, this album, which is the Russian Futurists’ fourth of original material, is bright, sparkly and shiny, with Hart’s vocals pushed right to the forefront in a landscape of keyboard loops, block rocking beats, and gently plucked guitars (the latter of which can be particularly found on closing track “Horseshoe Fortune”). Imagine if Sleigh Bells had made an entire album out of “Rill Rill” and you would generally get the gist of the direction propelling The Weight’s on the Wheels.
While the record feels like a patchwork quilt of songs that have been assembled and stitched together, there is an underlying sense of consistency to the proceedings. “Golden Years” has an almost rhythm and blues feel to it, and is awash with an urban clamour at a mid-tempo pace that makes you want to take the compact disc, pop it into the car stereo and drive around the neighbourhood with the vehicle bobbing up and down to the beats. The proceeding “One Night, One Kiss”, which is a duet with Heavy Blinkers vocalist Ruth Minnikin, can essentially be filed under Philly blue-eyed soul by way of the T-dot, and is built on a keyboard round that seems like it came from a copy of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything?. Like much of The Weight’s on the Wheels, it is a fun and boppy song that evokes sunshine and rainbows. To wit, “100 Shopping Days ‘Til Christmas”, which comes a couple of tracks later, even feels like Michael Jackson if he’d gone all hip-hop, just without the “whoo!’s” and crotch-grabbing.
The Weight’s on the Wheels, in bringing Hart’s vocals to the top of the mix, shows him to be a dependable wordsmith. If a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, then Hart easily turns a thousand words into a picture. “She’s got eyes that make the Great Lakes puddles” is one of many images that Hart conjures up in his lyrics, and he makes it seem effortless and almost throwaway-like. To be honest however, if I can quote a song title from this album there, sometimes it is a bit much. Hart lays down rhythms and rhymes in an almost hip-hop fashion, breathlessly cramming in as many bon mots that he can fit into a line without stumbling over himself. It’s like Hart is trying to fold a piece of paper into as many squares as he can before it becomes impossible to do so, then stuffing that paper into a thumbnail-sized envelope. Still, it’s hard to not be carried away with images such as “If I could be a man I’d be Gregory Peck / I’d take the upper hand and command your respect.”
If there’s another true fault with The Weight’s on the Wheels, it’s that the songs sometimes feel like fragments, even though they’re usually your standard three and four minute pop songs. The cuts just end as though they’ve run into a metaphorical brick wall. Plus, there’s little variation within the songs themselves. Most are built on continuous repetition with little to distinguish the choruses from the verses. Still, the album is a strong addition to the Russian Futurists’ canon, one that gradually seems to improve upon repeated listens. There probably hasn’t been a more joyous and uplifting album, at least musically, to come out in the entirety of the year 2010. The end result is that The Weight’s on the Wheels leaves you wanting to come back for more, to fully engage and parse through the heavy hip-hop beats and the dense wordplay. Even though the most striking thing about this album initially is that pregnant pause that informs “Golden Years”, here’s hoping that listeners and fans don’t have to endure another empty space of five years to behold what the future has in store from this one-man band and his bag of gizmos and whistles.