Since 2004, Githead has managed to release four full-length albums and an EP. That’s not bad for a side project. During that time, guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman has been busy with another incarnation of Wire, bassist/vocalist Malka Spigel has been tending to an ever-blossoming solo career and keyboardist Robin Rimbaud has kept right on rolling as Scanner. Minimal Compact’s stickman Max Franken doesn’t seem to be very busy with anything else at the moment, so Githead has been a perfect place for the members to air out the ideas that don’t really belong in their main acts.
But that’s not where Githead has wound up. With 2010’s streamlined Landing and its even less ambitious follow-up Waiting for a Sign, Githead has taken its detached, clinical brand of minimal pop to a newfound level of sterility. Githead’s early releases, as sleek as they were, were still swimming with color and personality. The rush from an uptempo number on Art Pop could rival goose bumps from a hushed tippy-toe sneak on the Headgit EP. Now, Githead is giving an impression of variety by way of treading water. I’m fully aware that words like “clinical” and “detached” have been a part of Githead’s M.O. from the very start. It’s just that Githead used to pull it off so much better than this.
But a sub-par release from Githead still has its moments. One standout is the instrumental waltz “Slow Creatures”. Newman delicately layers his guitars and tames the wanking beast from within by reducing his lead to a near-perfect open-sky vibrato. It’s like he’s using only two notes to tell both the Manchester scene and the Paisley Underground to kiss his ass. The band chooses to fire on all cylinders on the last track. Just over six minutes in length, the album’s namesake starts off like many of the other tracks — the medium-fast tempo with eighth-note chugs from the guitar — but gradually builds in volume that threatens a climax of pure noise. The mix stops just short of that noise, giving you about as much tonality as the barrage can manage. It’s the closest Githead get to a boil on Waiting for a Sign and it’s terrific. Then the album ends.
At least Githead didn’t put that song somewhere else in the album. Had that happened, the pedestrian moments would have been more of a letdown than they already are. The first track, named “Not Coming Down” — which is funny considering that Githead’s previous album was called Landing — announces the album with little purpose and even less conviction. As usual, Spigel’s vocals are mixed to a level equal with all of the other elements, with Newman’s voice not being much more forceful. “Bringing the Sea to the City” has that nice little vacuous pop nudge with a cyclical guitar that only bands like Githead ever attempts these days. But a chance for flirtation with something bigger is swallowed up by the album’s overall feeling of indifference. The album’s longest track, “To Somewhere”, burns its first two-plus minutes just chugging. It isn’t until Rimbaud shows up in the mix that things start to take shape. By “Air Dancing”, Githead has disengaged completely. “What do you meant to say? / What do you mean to do?” Newman sings opposite his wife, though he could be asking himself these questions.
A snap judgment of recent works by Wire, Scanner and Spigel prove that Githead’s members are still vital musicians who haven’t even begun to run out of ideas yet. Works like Heatgit, Profile and Art Pop were extensions of their combined powers. I myself have never subscribed to the idea that pop/rock supergroups were a camp site for artistic floundering, but Waiting for a Sign has got to be Githead’s least significant album. But all is not lost. All it has to do is take its own advice from the song “Today”: “Forgive yourself / Don’t lose yourself.”