Though they claim the title of quintessential New York rock, Radio 4 has none of the continually sprinting-forward attitude that makes New York what it is.
Are we in for a Radio 4 return to form? After the expectation raised by the band's DFA-produced 2002 album, Gotham!, the response to 2004's Stealing of a Nation, the band's first Astralwerks release, seemed like a huge let-down, over-produced and lacking backbone. The band's new album, combatively titled Enemies Like This, unapologetically proffers the same Gang of Four-inspired dance-rock that has become par for the course for the group; trouble is, par for the course doesn't really translate into anything very exciting.
But you're saying, now that Primal Scream's gone all country on us, we need someone to fill the void, right? You mean, after !!!, the Rapture, and a million other bands out of the woodwork, you haven't had enough of this post-punk-dance-rock sound? Radio 4's thing has always been that they're political, you know, stand for something more than love songs and 'tude. But all this insistence on highlighting the band's politics irks me because it's not a natural counterpart to this music. Marrying up-beat percussion, driving guitars, and occasional dub-inspired rhythms with messages about the Iraq war or the gentrification of Brooklyn is not something that makes the band special. When we're listening to songs like this, most of the time the political messages get buried by the music anyway.
If they're not really adding anything new to the Clash/Gang of Four sound, at least Radio 4 is doing it with conviction. By this point in their career, the band knows what works and follows the formula tenaciously. "Everything's in Question" introduces some different, dub-inspired sounds and rippling electronics that come as a welcome change to the straight-ahead dance-rock of the album's first half. "Too Much to Ask For" reminds me of the Infadels, who are making this same sound right now, too -- while "Love Like Semtex" is the far better song, "Everything's in Question" does a nice job of building complexity, adding guitar lines of fuzzy distortion, which are never overpowering and always in the service of the song's upbeat, hip feel. Elsewhere, complex percussion holds the listener's attention: on "This Is Not a Test", the samba drums stutter and hold, refusing to lapse into mind-numbing 4/4.
But they don't always have the musical wherewithal to pull the album through as a whole. On "Packing Things Up on the Scene" Anthony Roman's vocals wander around aimlessly without finding a convincing melody. Likewise, "Grass Is Greener" is too static -- nothing changes between the verse and the chorus, and while Paul Simon showed us this kind of perpetual motion can be addictive, without musical innovation the song just goes nowhere. And the reggae-inspired "Ascension Street" seems more like an obligatory inclusion, the ‘reggae number', than anything with any real commitment to the genre.
Radio 4 style themselves as a New York band: their songs are often about the city, and even their press photos are characteristically young NYC, taken in The East Side Company, an unobtrusive bar in the Lower East Side that serves this mean drink with a cucumber and gin in it. But that drink's essentially British, and the truth is so is that sound Radio 4 apes so well. Though they claim the title of quintessential New York rock, Radio 4 has none of the continually sprinting-forward attitude that makes New York what it is. And if they keep churning out this polished but slightly flat post-punk sound, they may quickly slide away into insignificance.
Radio 4 - Enemies Like This