Part of the frustration audiences tend to have with the music of the Crystal Method certainly stems from potential. Specifically, the Crystal Method simply doesn’t seem interested in fulfilling any of the artistic aspirations foisted upon the duo after the release of its surprisingly well-received 1997 debut, Vegas. Rather, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are content with making beat-heavy compositions designed with the simple goal of making people move. The moment we start expecting more from them is the moment we’re bound to be disappointed, because there is no deeper meaning. There is no genre bending. There is no instrumental virtuosity. There is only the beat, and everything else is incidental.
Expectations in check, then, Divided By Night is, by all means, a Crystal Method album.
It’s not, however, exactly the same as other Crystal Method albums, for two primary reasons: First, and perhaps most important, the programming style of the duo finally seems to be a bit updated. There’s a dirtier, grimier sound to much of the album that fits it squarely into 2009. This is, for better or worse, the music you can expect to hear as the forensic experts of, say, CSI: Miami drop food dye into test tubes for our benefit. Second, the variety of guests, which simultaneously adds to and subtracts from the replay value of the album, sets it apart. While the vocalists and instrumentalists involved certainly contribute to a varied and interesting listen, many guests are either poorly chosen or awkwardly integrated into the sound, detracting from the experience as a whole.
The worst of these guest turns is, perhaps not coincidentally, that of Stephanie King Warfield, the wife of She Wants Revenge vocalist Justin Warfield (who also shows up to do his over-the-top gothy thing for four minutes). Her song, “Black Rainbows”, starts off really well, actually, as a quiet, minimal bit of electronic programming that sounds utterly different from anything else on the disc; unfortunately, Jordan and Kirkland can’t seem to avoid tossing distorted synth work in there eventually, and once they do, Ms. Warfield shows up and gives a performance that’s in tune but disposable, offering very little feeling to the tale of a girl who “danced with her head down”, unfortunately — that this has already been tabbed the second single seems a terribly unfortunate decision.
Elsewhere, Jason Lytle, a man who typically does wonders with a flat raspy tenor, is reduced to another slicked-up voice singing about getting “caught in the slipstream” or some such nonsense, while a cheesy guitar picks around him in the open spots where he’s not singing. Even that awkward pairing is miles ahead of the collaboration with LMFAO, whose raps on “Sine Language” are as immediately dated as the acronym they’ve chosen to define themselves.
Why do electronic artists feel the need to populate its albums with guest artists, anyway? While it’s surely the quickest and easiest route to mainstream-radio play and record sales (perhaps I’ve already answered my own question), the electronic artist risks a loss of identity to whoever provides the vocals. The duo didn’t need a vocalist to create the compositions that put them on the map (“Busy Child” and “Trip Like I Do”, though Filter’s Richard Patrick did admittedly raise the visibility of the latter with the version on the Spawn soundtrack), and the group’s best tracks on Divided By Night are the instrumentals. Particularly excellent is the samples-and-distortion-heavy stomp of “Double Down Under”, and the minor key dancehall brooding of “Dirty Thirty”, the latter of which is enhanced by Peter Hook’s instantly identifiable hollow bass tones.
This isn’t to say that some of the vocal guest turns aren’t great — Matisyahu’s melodic, rhythmic turn on “Drown in the Now” was a perfect choice for first single, and closer “Falling Hard”, with Meiko, is a lovely little bit of downtempo and Grey’s Anatomy fodder — but mostly it’s just voices over dance tunes.
The prevalence of so many voices, in fact, transforms Divided By Night from a solid if predictable set of well-programmed, well-produced dance tunes into a rote compilation of pop songs. Very little will turn off anyone who likes dance music, but this tends to be the nature of disposable pop music anyway (not that pop is necessarily disposable, but most of this certainly is). Jordan and Kirkland continue to insist on squandering the potential they have to create a memorable album of electronic dance music in favor of pop-radio aspirations. Perhaps it’s time to give up on such expectations.