Oh, what a difference a tape loop guy makes. When the Nein emerged onto the Chapel Hill scene in 2003 with their angular guitars, throbbing bass, and danceable drums, they were quickly added to the long list of neo New Wavers, the post-punk dance kids, those ’80s revivalists who borrowed everything but the hair and the byoo-ey electronic drums. The band’s debut self-titled EP received all kinds of praise, and justifiably so, for excellent songs ike “Handout” and “War is on the Stereo”, but the Nein were often seen as another band wearing the same outfit to the dance party. Then the three-piece combo picked up loop manipulator/sample player Dave Flattum (nee Steel Pole Bath Tub) and everything changed. Call it the Flattum Effect.
If the Nein were a hip-hop act, Flattum would be the turntablist, and like those scratchers, he began by simply adding some incidental noise to the band’s work. On the Nein’s first record with Flattum aboard, 2005’s excellent The Wrath of Circuits, that was largely his role, grafting noise and samples onto already formed songs. But his place in the band’s sound grew a bit more integral on last year’s EP Transitionalisms, which veered away from pop into more experimental territory, and the Flattum Effect has become even more evident on the band’s latest record, Luxury, Now the Nein are not just incorporating loops and noise into their work but actually writing songs around them. Luxury shows the group in the studio-as-instrument mode rather than magnetizing what is essentially a live performance. And for the most part it works.
Now the band sounds less like they’ve taken their cues from de rigueur punk-dance band Gang of Four but from wacked experimentalists like the Fall or perhaps 154-era Wire, where straightforward pop songwriting was shuffled off the dance floor by darkness and noise. (On their MySpace page, the Nein are not shy about listing their influences. “Most of the following,” they write: “the Zombies, Peter Gabriel, Public Image Ltd, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, DJ Shadow, Wire, My bloody Valentine, Nuggets comps, Bach or Brahms, Sly & Robbie, Smashing Pumpkins, Angelo Badalamenti, Jesus Lizard or Gang of Four, Public Enemy, Archers of Loaf, the Police, the White Octave or Steel Pole Bath Tub or Milk Cult or Piedmont Charisma or Audubon Park, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Fugazi, James Brown, the Kinks, Mad Lib, the Pixies.”) There are moments here where you might be able to tap your toe, but good luck actually shaking your hips (if you’re exceptionally rhythmic you mightbe able to bop to “Achilles Last Tape Solo”).
When you make a conscious move away from the pop into the experimental, there’s always a danger that you’ll lose the very thing that made you compelling, but the Nein manage to maintain a certain accessibility thanks to their keen sense of melody. On some songs, the album’s standout track “Future Crumbles,” for example, the vocals are so melodious they’re almost Beatlesque; “Ennio”, surely named for soundtrack composer Morricone, has a beautiful acoustic guitar and organ dialog that sounds catchy enough to be cinematic. Take away the R2D2 beeps, skronking sax, and crazed keyboards, and songs like opener “Burn Construction” and “Radical Chic” are pretty much a standard indie rock fare. In the very best way.
If only the umpteen other indie bands making their living off the New Wave dance floor would take such a turn.