The Death Set regroup for a new album over a year after the death of co-founder Beau Velasco and it shows that they've found a way to survive.
Michel Poiccard is the Death Set’s second album as well as Belmondo’s character in the Godard movie Breathless. But it’s the first album released since the death of co-founder, Beau Velasco, in 2009. Though Velasco wasn’t touring with the band, he and the other founding member Johnny Siera had begun writing new material when Velasco suddenly died. Siera decided to continue on with the touring band, Jahphet Landis on drums and Daniel Walker on guitar and vocals, and it’s a good thing he did. Michel Poiccard continues in the vein of Worldwide’s loud, fast and catchy punky hip-hop mashups, and is almost as good.
Velasco still has a ghostly presence here, not only because the Death Set’s sound hasn’t radically altered, but also because his voice haunts the album: the first track has Velasco saying, “I wanna take this tape and blow up your fuckin’ stereo” and later on “Is That a French Dog?”, we hear him appropriately reverb drenched (the sound of coming back from the dead) while narrating a strange dream. That leads into the only track over three minutes, “I Miss You Beau Velasco”, a sensitive and catchy tribute with churning guitar, repetitive synth lead, and buried vocals.
If there is any change in the songwriting without Velasco, it’s an attempt at maturity represented by slower, melody driven songs. This album has one less track (17 instead of 18) and is 10 minutes longer than the last album, clocking in at just under 36 minutes. The Death Set always played catchy singalongs, but typically at breakneck speed. They explore their more “sensitive” side on the second half of the record with the ode to touring, “7PM Woke Up An Hour Ago” (with a guest spot from SpankRock), as well as “It’s Another Day”, “I Been Searching For This Song Called Fashion” and the last track, “Is It the End Again?”. All of these tracks are good and catchy, ready for the dance floor.
Speaking of SpankRock, the main difference with this album lies in the cleaner and poppier production, which comes from Spank Rock’s producer XXXChange. There is a conscious effort to deepen the low end (which could probably go even further). The cleaner sound loses a bit of the endearing slapdash quality of the group's debut album, but it’s not by any means a drawback. Another welcome contribution is the use of live drums instead of a machine. However, the noise of the drum kit doesn’t bleed into the other instruments and everything is well separated.
Perhaps XXXChange's production steered the Death Set more towards electro-pop and away from punk, as seen in their slower songs. But the songs that keep up crazy energy and snotty sweet melodies of the first album are still the Death Set’s meat and potatoes. There are still some awesome screamers, like the opening track about a handshake, “Slap Slap Slap Pound Up Down Snap” and “Yo David Chase! You P.O.V. Shot Me in the Head”, which has Diplo on synth. Johnny Siera’s scream brings Mike D to mind and the silly energy of the Death Set reminds one of the early Beastie Boys. When Siera sings, his voice takes on a pop-punk nasal whine. Songs like “We are Going Anywhere Man” allow Siera to showcase both of these voices.
The major complaint one might raise with this record, as many did with the last one, is that the recording cannot capture the Death Set’s frenetic and crazy live set. This record points to how good they must be live, with their uncontainable energy and easy-to-sing melodies, but on the record, there is too much opportunity for the excitement to go unnoticed. Instead, the potential weakness of the band comes through (a weakness that is a strength for a show): repetition. The band’s limitation in the realm of rap is that it sticks to one verbal rhythm that repeats; there is no metric flexibility in the (often absurd) lyrics. The band’s limitation as songwriters is that they stick to one riff and repeat, which produces a good backing for crazy live shows and screaming/rapping, but loses dynamics on a record.
The Death Set still sound good, even shorn of Velasco. Michel Poiccard is a party album and these guys are a party band (see the “documentary” they did for Vice called “The Adventures of Quanni Cannonz” to have a look at their silliness). Their music is fun and exciting, if not earth-shattering or deep. There is something toy-like about the Death Set’s songs, even on Worldwide, as if their repetitive melodies were schoolyard taunts. This is not necessarily bad; in fact, they’ve found a way to really work. But I’m not sure I’d say that this album is more “mature”. Beyond a commitment to having a good time and surviving, what more can you ask for?