Finding that unique middle ground among a jumble of disparate elements
Two-person rock bands are nothing new anymore, not after the success of the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Black Diamond Heavies and the Raveonettes, not to mention upstart bands like Black Pistol Fire and the Stereophidelics. (Hmm, a lot of "black" in those names...) In the space of ten years, more or less, the tempate of drums + guitar/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist has gone from an oddball niche idea to mainstream rock 'n' roll success story. And why not? At their best, these bands rock as much as the traditional four-piece or five-piece ensemble.
What does still catch me off guard is how many such outfits are out there, and have been for a while now. Take Viva Voce, whose 1998 debut Hooray For Now was followed by a string of albums exploring the limits of the two-piece setup, and whose ridiculously catchy song "Wrecking Ball" was heard on an episode of One Tree Hill a couple of years ago. Formed by the husband-wife team of Kevin Robinson (drums and vocals) and Anita Robinson (guitars and vocals), Viva Voce has been a quiet presence lurking in the pop-rock mainstream. Their newest full-length, The Future Will Destroy You, is their eighth album, and it’s likely to raise their profile even further. Simply put, it's a scorcher.
As usual, the prevailing vibe is smooth but urgent, with Anita’s silky vocals complemented by outbursts of guitar, Kevin’s astute percussion, and an array of studio-wizard sound that keeps things interesting without being intrusive. The album kicks off with "Plastic Radio", a sultry two-chord slow-burner that manages to incorporate guitar feedback and Anita's half-whispered vocals in perfect balance. This, in a nutshell, is what makes Viva Voce so compelling: their ability to balance disparate elements to craft a uniquely powerful middle ground.
The record suffers a bit of a dip after "Plastic Radio", but soon recovers with a string of compulsively agreeable tunes. "Diamond Mine" incorporates a brooding bass line and enough reverb to drown in, while "No Ship Coming In" relies on an acoustic backbone and murky, processed (in a good way) vocals that sound like they're coming at you from the other side of… something. "The Future Will Destroy You" brings us the thrashier side of Anita's guitar playing -- okay, so thrashiness is in the ear of the beholder, and fans of Slayer may have trouble hearing it, but there’s a definite edge to this song that sets it apart.
Then again, that's what the band does with nearly every song on this record: set it apart. This is what makes the album so strong from start to finish. Some of the best tunes come in the back half, especially "A Viking Love Song", another downtempo bit of dreamcore (I think I just made that up) that sees Anita's ethereal, chanting vocals perfectly offset by a swirling bed of guitars and distortion.
Alhough there's nothing here as insanely catchy as "Wrecking Ball", the album as a whole is probably more consistent than Lovers, Lead the Way! and can make a strong claim as being the band's best. Fans should be ecstatic that the duo is still committed to making compelling music, and for newcomers to the band, this is a terrific place to start.