All the musical chops in the world don’t mean squat if you don’t have the songs.
Back in early 2004, Toronto’s controller.controller arrived at just the right time. The post punk revival was gaining some serious momentum, modern rock was starting to sound reinvigorated, Canadian indie rock was set to explode like nobody’s business, and most importantly, the kids were catching on to it all. The seven track History EP, with all its sultry come-ons, dance beats, contagious songs about hospital codes and power outages, and a and a lead singer’s persona that was not so much cool as icy, met with considerable critical acclaim (including here), and slowly began to build an audience whose hunger for some full-on death disco, whetted by the likes of Hot Hot Heat and The Rapture, was insatiable. Wisely, the band toured relentlessly, especially in their home country of Canada (their stint opening for the wildly popular Death From Above 1979 making a huge difference), and before 2005 was over, they had gone from the shy little band profiled on Canadian television to one of the nation’s brightest rising talents.
Needless to say, expectations for their debut full-length album were high, and the key difference this time around is, in the nearly two years since History, thanks to all the touring, the quintet have become a much better band, which is instantly evident on their full-length debut. Guitarists Colwyn Llewellyn-Thomas and Scott Kaija sound much tighter and versatile than before, their Bloc Party riffs and tightly-wound harmonies making their work on History sound pedestrian by comparison. The rhythm section of bassist Ronnie Morris and drummer Jeff Scheven has become a formidable one, Morris’s snaky, undulating melodies serving as both a counterpoint to the twin guitars and a forceful complement to Scheven’s frenetic, almost primal, dance-fueled beats. The biggest, and most crucial improvement, though, is in singer Nirmala Basnayake, whose transformation from an introverted singer to a confident, almost confrontational frontwoman is striking. Her phrasing has not changed much from the previous EP, as she sticks to the same vocal style as that of the Slits, but now, her husky voice is much more forceful, yet capable of subtlety. Instead of sounding cool for the sake of sounding cool, there’s a dark sexiness luring in her melodies, a hint of a croon from time to time, touches of genuine emotion, and even a little falsetto here and there.
With the band sounding so much better, so much more refined, it comes as quite a surprise at how the actual songs on X-Amounts play it so safely. All the ingredients seem to be present, save for the most crucial one: hooks. While History was bursting at the seams with instantly memorable melodies, the same cannot be said for the new record, whose deliberate pace is about as exciting as a NASCAR race run by Ford Escorts on cruise control. Some might say it’s more of a moody, consistent piece of work, but while it does have an enticingly gloomy air to it, and the dance beats will undoubtedly translate well in a live setting, the lack of one or two knockout songs leaves the album sounding more repetitive than engaging. The majority of the songs go through the motions, limply recycling the same formula as on History, which, considering how damn good the band sounds, is a real shame.
X-Amounts is not without a handful of minor thrills, however. Arguably the album’s best song, and best chance at a solid single, “Poison/Safe” follows the “History” template, only this time, to paraphrase a man named Tufnel, everything’s one louder. Explosions of distorted guitar punctuate the slicing, echoing chords, while the disco bassline moves lithely, and Scheven’s pulsating percussion work underscore Basnayake’s forceful delivery of such enigmatic lines as, “You should swallow every word I say/So you can spit them out when you cry.” The four-on-the-floor “Heavy as a Heart” and the goth-tinged “City of Daggers” both head in more of a garage rock direction; on the latter, Basnayake sounds playful as she intones, “I’m a vampire to you,” but the weak shout-along chorus by the other band members fails to match the singer’s charisma.
A good example of the album’s laziness is on the ballad “The Raw No”; it might seem like a welcome change in mood, and indeed, the refrain of, “Don’t go/And then you go,” does get inside your head, it soon becomes apparent that the song is nothing more than a half-speed version of nearly every other track on the CD, with the same beats, the same bassline, the same ebb and flow from verse to chorus. It’s clear controller.controller have the potential to excel at the post punk thing, but fleeting as these indie rock fads are, if they can’t pull another “Disco Blackout” out from under their hats in the future, it might be too late for most people to care.