Ireland has done its share of presenting the world with energetic bands bent on bending a rule or two and this Northern Ireland troupe is certainly no exception. Controlling Your Allegiance, the Japanese Popstars’ second full-length and first since 2008’s We Just Are, is not so much an album that hangs together in the traditional sense as it is a series of songs that are designed to provide listeners with an hour of dance floor bliss. While it’s more like 40 or 45 minutes of unadulterated freedom, still, as the ancient Sumerian proverb goes, coming close is better than not coming at all.
Blending elements of eight-bit music with more traditional dance music sounds, the group’s greatest moments arrive early in the album, via the opening stomper “Let Go”, one of the many pieces here made all the more charming by its simplicity and its unabashed stupidity. The spectre of master electronic purveyors Kraftwerk looms large here via that song (which features Green Velvet), as well as the beautifully pastoral “Take Forever” (it’s a kind of Autobahn for the new century with lyrics, bass, and vocals from the Cure’s Robert Smith), “Our Building Block”, and even the hallucinatory “Destroy”. (The latter, incidentally, features some of the most amazing rhythm work of the whole collection.)
Lisa Hannigan contributes the largely forgettable and ultimately regrettable “Song for Lisa” (generic is putting it mildly). Meanwhile, Jon Spencer shows up for the aforementioned “Destroy”, and Dublin-based folker James Vincent McMorrow peeks in for “Shells of Silver”. This writer wouldn’t be the first to note that the collection would be more solid without this feast of friends as it tends to make the group’s vision a little more diffuse, softening the impact of the ace collaborations between the trio and Green Velvet, Smith, and Spencer.
Moreover, the final moments – the meandering ballad “Shells of Silver”, the overstuffed “Without Sound”, and the decidedly generic “Joshua” (the kind of thing you might hear on a late night advert for German phone sex companies) – do little to enhance the overall experience. The group is simply at its best when eschewing pop ambitions in favour of high artistic endeavours, when it strives for excellence rather than commercial superficiality. Chopping the album’s length by at least a quarter of an hour and relying more on the ingenuity of the core members might have made this an all killer, no filler moment. Instead it’s a reasonably strong affair, but a reminder why so many contemporary music fans – and fans of dance floor music through the ages – reach for single songs rather than full-on albums.
This certainly isn’t the last we’ve heard from these Northern Ireland upstarts and methinks that there is a classic album – a bona fide album – lurking in the collective psyche of this outfit, one that hits hard, proud and succinctly. Until that recording comes along, we’re left with the obligatory bits and bobs of goodness offered up across these 12 tracks. Hey, there have been fates far worse than that. Then again, there have been ones that are far better as well.