With a smidgen less cockiness and a little more skill under their belts, NYC electro-punks are still kind of awesome.
Is there a statute of limitations for the crime of hipster pretense in rock 'n' roll? How long do we have to dismiss a band for getting their start through vaguely nepotistic means, if they persevere and continue to ply their craft? Yes, art-punk electro outfit A.R.E. Weapons got signed to Rough Trade Records on the recommendation of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, and yes, he happened to be in a relationship with actress Chloë Sevigny at the time. Yes, Chloë Sevigny is the sister of Paul Sevigny, who was the manager (and later a member) of the band. Sure, if you Google Matt McAuley, you'll get a face full of Chloë, as they dated (post-Cocker) for most of the 2000s. But let bygones be bygones. A.R.E. Weapons are now stripped down to a duo of McAuley and vocalist Brain McPeck, and these guys must be dedicated to music if they continue to churn it out, and an audience continues to care, more than a decade later.
In the same way that you cannot discuss Interpol without bringing up Joy Division, A.R.E. Weapons cannot be reviewed in detail without referencing their New York electro-punk godfathers, Suicide. Not only have McAuley and McPeck never shied away from that comparison, they openly embraced it and have since become collaborators with Suicide frontman Alan Vega. One listen to Suicide's "Ghost Rider" makes it clear what A.R.E. Weapons wanted to be when they grew up. And now, as a duo just like their idols, the band's vision may be more fully realized than in any of their previous incarnations.
It is fitting that Darker Blue kicks off with "Jeffrey Lee", which pays tribute to Gun Club legend Jeffrey Lee Pierce not only lyrically ("You were a true believer trying to spread some divinity"), but in the Kid Congo-esque guitars. It's a dark, off-kilter sound that is found all over the album, and serves to illustrate how McPeck and McAuley probably owe just as much to the Gun Club as they do to Suicide. Gone are the slap-happy, fist-pumping jams like 2003's "Don't Be Scared" that told us "Life was meant to be awesome". Now, we get the OD death and drug dealer revenge fantasy on "Don't You Die on Me", and ostensibly life isn't too awesome anymore.
The underbelly of New York City is the well-trodden subject matter at the core of the Weapons mystique. It is always there, either indirectly, as in the ode-to-a-cockroach on "Subway", or directly, when "Confusion Is the Sign" laments, "Have you seen the Bowery lately? / What a bogus way to live". And in the time-honored tradition of A.R.E. Weapons ("Fuck You Pay Me", "Fuck What You Like"), we get the "Fuck" song to appeal to the snotty 14-year-old in all of us -- this time around, "What the Fuck Do You Want".
Darker Blue works best when it gets to lighten up a bit, as on the Jim Carroll-reminiscent "Street Justice" and the manic "De-educator". Even "Subway" becomes a lot more fun when our hero the cockroach charms the passengers (who were previously disgusted by his presence) by telling them "Excuse me sir and I'm sorry miss / I'm just trying to get up to 125th / See that's where my best girlfriend lives..." Less enjoyable are the forays into droning wankery like "Radio Radio", which recall Gun Club as well, but only their most drug-addled and self-indulgent low points.
Since A.R.E. Weapons have proven themselves dedicated to their cause for over ten years and now seem to be 100% Sevigny-free, it is high time to judge them on their own merits and not how they got here. Their sound may not be particularly innovative or masterful, but the spark that grabbed me the first time I heard "Don't Be Scared" years ago is still there. They have weathered the overdose death of their original guitarist Ryan Noel in 2004, and the slings and arrows of critics who savage them for falling ass-backward into indie fame. And like their little friend the cockroach, they show no sign of going away anytime soon. With a smidgen less cockiness and a little more skill under their belts, Darker Blue proves that A.R.E. Weapons are still kind of awesome.