How does Ian Parton still have the energy?
Parton is somewhere in his mid-40s at this point, sticking doggedly to the formula that brought him success way back in 2004 with
Thunder, Lightning, Strike, a formula that might be described as the mathematical intersection of Hawaii Five-O, The Jackson 5, and The Electric Company, or Toni Basil covering Grandmaster Flash while fronting Earth, Wind, and Fire, or, most boringly, retro pastiche. While the collections of vintage elements might be the trademark of the Go! Team’s sound, however, it is an innocent and pure joy that imbues that sound with the addictive quality that has us coming back for more, even five albums into a most improbable career.
The latest album is called
Semicircle, and “Mayday” opens it. “Mayday” is the album’s clearest callback to Parton’s beginnings, taking its place as the song that could have fit in best on Thunder, Lightning, Strike. A fast pace, big horns, rolling drums, morse code, cheerleader chants, and a charismatic vocal out front all make for the ultimate Go! Team archetype. “Mayday” is also a red herring, a promise of something that never quite comes to fruition.
That is actually to
Semicircle‘s benefit, as what shows up is more intriguing than a simple rehash of a rehash, a next-episode in a procedural career. A solid half of Semicircle is made up of lilting, oddly cheerful lost-love songs, little singalongs that push against the range of emotions that an album from the Go! Team typically offers. “Chain Link Fence” is a perfect example of one of these, an energetic but thoughtful bit of sing-songy major-key hope, tempered by the doubts that come with experience: “But maybe your feelings won’t change overtime? But what if they never were the same as mine?” It’s a lovely little tune and far more representative of the rest of the album than “Mayday”. Other songs in this vein are “The Answer’s No — Now What’s the Question?” and “Plans Are Like a Dream U Organize”, whose cute titles and catchy melodies belie surprisingly melancholy lyrics.
Of course, Parton’s not going to give us a total downer of an album, and the prevalence of these little love songs makes tracks like “All the Way Live” and the remarkable “She’s Got Guns” stand out even more than they already might. “All the Way Live” apparently co-opts some kind of high school class project rap and sticks it on top of one of Parton’s ever-shifting walls of sound, the vocals holding together a track that shifts from clattering percussion, to horns, to bells and back — it’s almost too much, but the constant and consistent momentum from such a backdrop is actually exactly what the vocals need to keep from getting too cheesy. All the elements work together to create a shot of adrenaline smack in the middle of the album. “She’s Got Guns”, for its part, is buried toward the end of Semicircle, but it’s rapper Ninja’s starring vehicle on the album, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Falling somewhere in between M.I.A. and the Spice Girls is an odd place to be, but that’s where “She’s Got Guns” lives, complete with all the late ’70s dance party energy you could expect from Parton and his crew of collaborators.
There are moments where he gets a little too cute, like when he invites a few of the kids in the Detroit Youth Choir — who are all over this album — to introduce themselves with their astrological signs in “Semicircle Song”, or when he tries to get a full-length instrumental out of a chintzy little beat and what sounds like a recorder on “Chico’s Radical Decade”, which feels like a palette-cleanser but never gets off the ground. Parton is devoted to his period-appropriate allusions, but while they certainly sound of the eras Parton is going for, they don’t hold up as strong as they could on their own merits.
Still, by the time the uplifting “Getting Back Up” finishes up after its false ending leads into a triumphant little coda, all you want to do is hear the album again. The energy here might not be pure joy, but even when it’s delving into more complex emotions, its forward motion ensures that wallowing will not be tolerated. Parton has managed to create an album that very much sounds like his previous work but expands the emotional canvas he’s working with. It is a fantastic little album with exactly the sort of youthful, innocent drive that you just don’t get from artists well into middle age. Whether he’s found the fountain of youth or he simply chooses to surround himself with collaborators that imbue his work with that sort of energy, there’s a sense that Parton and the rest of the Go! Team could do this for years to come.