Back from a year of self-imposed exile in England, Shy Child played their homecoming show, oddly, not at their Brooklyn home but in Austin, Texas. It was South By Southwest at one of the Emo’s (probably the Annex, maybe Jr., who can remember?), and the keytar-and-drums duo were headlining the Kill Rock Stars showcase along with KRS fare of both the classic punk (Mika Miko) and newly electronic (Panther) styles, falling somewhere in between (though certainly in the latter camp by KRS standards). After a year spent opening for the Klaxons and, apparently, trading in some well-worn dance-punk tendencies for a more current nu-rave arsenal, the band seemed fresh and invigorated. But the audience at Emo’s, albeit an audience with attention critically divided between thousands of SXSW bands, seemed relatively unmoved, even by a set about as slammin’ as could possibly be hoped from just one guy with fingers dashing across a keyboard strapped over his shoulders (Nate Smith) and one guy belting out lyrics while battering a drum kit (Pete Cafarella; both of El Guapo/Supersystem). Summary: undeniable skills, mediocre audience response.
What happened? At the show, I was swept up with admitted ease by the energy and surprisingly full sound, and listening to their new sophomore album, Noise Won’t Stop, out in the U.S. on May 5th on Kill Rock Stars (already long out on Wall of Sound in the UK), the feeling is easy to reconjure. They’ve greatly expanded on the spare frameworks of debut One With the Sun, filling in layered crescendos, backing vocals (see, for instance, the Spank Rock guest bit on “Kick Drum”, refreshing if under-used), and even a nice bit of sax squall (opener “Drop the Phone”). But this was always a band that sounded best live, and as with the rather flat One With the Sun, cracks start to show on closer examination of the recordings. Here, the energy and racing tempos have translated to studio recording very well, but the band’s genre decision, intentional or not, to drift towards nu-rave may not be maximizing their potential. Even the title, Noise Won’t Stop is a sort of promise, and a sort of lament. Or maybe a threat.
The 12 songs come off as one relentless bass slurry regularly studded with insistent kicks, fittingly raved-up treble stabs, and strident vocals that never manage to stray from about the same half octave range whether singing about cell phones or the Armageddon. Not that they’re bad. Really, Cafarella’s voice serves exactly the purpose it needs too; it just does it in exactly the same way every track. And the words are mostly perfunctory, anyway. For truly memorable songs about the Armageddon there’s always the Mae Shi. But anyway, it’s one tempo, one M.O., one glossy dance-floor trick that does work well enough to sustain itself for a while. And when they’re on, they’re really on, it’s true. The embellishments can work wonders, and “The Volume” utterly sparkles with synthetic glitter and a sort of architectural retro-future that I associate with ’50s-era modernism for some reason. This is great; this probably should have been the single.
But the album’s best moment comes when it finally breaks from the the endlessly flashing strobe of the other 11 tracks with the penultimate “What’s It Feel Like”. Dropping tempo and most heavy dance trappings to a piano line like a sort of pitched-down “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, then building up cool sweeps and alternating Cafarella with a female vocalist who helps balance his parts out. It’s the first time Shy Child really get to indulge their pop sensibilities in full and suggests they should dare to do so more frequently. The bridge hits in a languid flurry of gleaming, ascending synth notes, then peters out into a smooth drift and (sampled?) narration in what sounds like Italian, like the exhalation at the end of a dream. And then “Cause and Effect” kicks back in and amps everything up again and the moment’s over.
Let me disclaim for a moment, since I’ve basically claimed to like only two songs. In truth, the album is overall enjoyable and the baseline quality is pretty high throughout. The lesser tracks are basically matching nu-wave prototypes, but propulsive, lavishly produced prototypes that exactly succeed at being the dancefloor stompers the seem to be shooting for. That said — and I couldn’t even begin to say what reception to this sort of thing is getting overseas, where this album has actually been out for almost a year — that said, demand for the Klaxons and their cohort seems to be waning a bit here and now (in the States, 2008). The issue here, if any, comes if you think a disc of nu-rave dancefloor stompers is shooting sort of low.