Nu-gaze. Like glow-fi, it’s one of those manufactured terms that is apt to make a music listener, be it indie rock critic or just casual fan, groan with annoyance. As a rule, people’s backs go up at the idea that some convenient, shorthand taxonomy could sum up a band’s entire artistic aim. Usually it’s the sort of thing that’s terribly inaccurate, not even appropriate for a record label’s press kit, and it’s the kind of dangerously short-sighted laziness that can actually keep potential new converts away from a deserving band. Nu-gaze? Really? I’ve even heard Titus Andronicus saddled with this term, and I can’t picture a less shoegaze-sounding band if I tried.
Call the Radio Dept. another unfortunate victim of this trend. Their earlier two efforts, Lesser Matters and Pet Grief, were instantly compared by salivating journa-clones to everyone from the cherished My Bloody Valentine to the Cocteau Twins to the effing Pet Shop Boys. Do the Radio Dept. really sound like these bands? That’s up to you. I say no, not really. But one thing’s clear, our Swedish friends are up to far more interesting work on their latest, Clinging to a Scheme, then just aping the nostalgic genres of ’90s past.
First single “David” has the kind of surreal trip-hop bounce of latter-day Blur, another group once tagged as indebted to the ghosts of shoegaze past (as hard as that is to believe in 2010). Johan Duncanson has one of those voices that is utterly affecting in its disaffectedness, the apathetic lack of attachment sounding more emotional and harrowing in its defeated glory than any more ragged, extroverted effort by many of his contemporaries. There’s not a hint of over-driven walls of guitar here, just ambient keys breathing away over the beat, spinning into air.
Elsewhere, opener “Domestic Scene” nestles down on a beautiful bed of gently picked guitars before a sample cuts in at the start of “Heaven’s On Fire”. “People see rock and roll as youth culture, and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?” a concerned voice asks, before the band answers with a good-time party jam that seems to snipe back: “just relax and enjoy it.”
The album holds up this sort of consistency remarkably well over its brief 35 minute running time, moving from JAMC-Joy Division style mash-ups on “This Time Around” to mellow IDM on “A Token of Graditude”. The only hint of shoegaze influence here comes on “The Video Dept.”, which honestly bites more from Chapterhouse and Ride than heavier bands like MBV or Slowdive. The only real misstep here is “Four Months in the Shade”, which comes across as a feedback-soaked Crystal Castles experiment and little more. Thankfully, gears swiftly shift before gorgeous opener “You Stopped Making Sense” takes the wheel. If not for some of the more modernistic instrumentation, this could be one of Belle and Sebastian’s mellower jams, and ends the album on a perfectly appropriate high note.
Hopefully, Clinging to a Scheme will be enough to finally dispel the nu-gaze tag for the Radio Dept., and maybe it will help prove the futility of boxing bands as talented and unique as these into a tiny, neatly-labelled box. Probably not, at least not on the last count, but the fact remains that this is a solid, feel-good winner of an album that applies enough variety to feature in a number of your day to day routines and make them that much more special by association. Isn’t that what all great albums, nu-gaze or not, should do? Make no mistake, this is a very good, and very nearly great, album. So skip the one-sheet classifications, pick it up and judge for yourself.