The French Kicks over-egg a now soggy but once delicious pudding.
The trouble with not keeping in touch with old acquaintances is that they sometimes move on without you. They grow and form new opinions, new tastes, and new ways of expressing themselves. Then, when you finally catch up with them, they are barely recognisable. You find it hard to really fully get what it is that they mean. You forget what it was that you saw in them in the first place. The French Kicks first came to the attention of this reviewer around 2001 while they were promoting their Young Lawyer. Alan McGee (founder of Creation Records, sadly swallowed up by a corporation and Poptones, sadly defunct at the behest of Mr. McGee) had just signed them in the UK, and they were on the verge of becoming big news in the world of indie music. They completely owned the stage that night. Drummer and lead vocalist Nick Stumpf sat tall in centre stage, presiding over the audience. Their brand of quirky New York post-punk pop reverberated around a rather small but relatively well-attended and sweaty hall in an unheard-of British town.
Flash-forward through time to 2008, and when we catch up with the French Kicks, the years have mellowed them. No strangeness there -- time must take its toll on all things, after all. What is interesting is how they have changed. Swimming kicks off with all the quirk of a latter-day Talking Heads record. The opening track, "Abandon", floats rather than swims from the speakers. The close vocal harmonies wash over the syncopated drum patterns and guitar parts. It has a dreamlike quality. Again, more like being in a floatation tank than in a swimming pool. There are no obvious hooks, but somehow through something akin to Chinese water torture, the song gets under your skin. Three songs in, and that Talking Heads feeling has firmly got a grip with "Carried Away". This song could easily have been lifted from True Stories.
Swimming tries hard -- practically every song has a good beginning, middle, and end -- but the parts in between do little to spark the imagination. The main problem is that the album appears to only have one solid idea for a song. Up-tempo drums, sound-effect-like guitar parts, and close harmonies with no hooks or catchy chorus to be found. The formula is repeated over and over, not unlike the aforementioned water torture. The result is unfortunately not something that instantly grabs you. As a listener you are constantly let down after a good set-up. For example, "Sex Tourists" starts well with a simple fat drum sound, heavy on the high hat, and then guitar and bass come in, both flattening out the groove. They are then followed by some of the wettest vocals ever committed to an album. This particular tourist would be asking for a refund. What may have been an attempt to sound languid and sexy just ends up sounding like an effort from a whiny teenager who needs to get a girlfriend.
There are glimpses of earlier glories, "The Way You Arrive" and " New Man" hint at the French Kicks' post-punk quirkiness (if I may use such a lame expression), but what ruins the effect again is the falsetto vocal performance of Nick Stumpf. Swimming is a complex and layered record that instrumentally shines, but appears to swamp Mr Stumpf in the process. The production values of this record compete for primacy with the songs, and one cannot help but feel that the pudding has been somewhat over-egged. In the old days, the listener experienced a certain rawness when they put on a release by this New York outfit. This edge was still evident on the 2006 release Two Thousand, but is totally absent here. More is the pity.
Swimming is really too damp to catch a spark, but could quite easily find a home nicely in the background somewhere of a candle lit wine bar or other chilled venue. For a band that showed so much fire and promise less than a decade ago, this is a great disappointment. In that short time they have moved on and grown up, and in growing up they have changed their priorities. People move on, and tastes that were once perfectly aligned with yours can jar, especially if you don't keep in touch.