(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recording review - Tokyo Police Club, Forcefield (2014)

Valiant quest for pop perfection loses its way

The perfect pop song sinks into your brain and takes up permanent residence. It’s predictable enough that you already half know it before you’ve heard it the first time, but there’s always a little novel twist that catches your ear on the hundredth listen. The mainstream music industry pumps out their attempts on a regular basis, but it’s a powerful obsession that can even suck in the indiest of hipsters. Tokyo Police Club has never sneered at pop, but with their latest album, Forcefield, they’ve abandoned irony completely to make their own grab for the golden ring.

To give full credit, it’s a valiant effort. Their first single, “Hot Tonight”, is jaunty and cheery, full of shimmery guitar and steady bass. The chorus hook digs in so deep that you can easily picture making eye contact with strangers and bonding as you sing along together, “I’ll burn the house down and I’ll leave it behind/ I didn’t need the money, but the money was nice.” The fills vary from verse to verse, which makes them that much harder to ignore. If it’s not a hit this summer, it’s just because perfection is elusive and the universal ear is fickle. Still, although it reaches for that pop ideal, it falls short on technical points: the mix over-emphasizes the guitar jangle and its low-fi distortion rankles just a hair. It’s a subtle flaw, but Forcefield never does quite find the formula.

On “Through the Wire”, for example, it’s the production that sabotages the tune. The track opens with a live room ambiance – extraneous conversation and an unbalanced acoustic mix – that sounds like an amateurish demo. A mere 15 seconds into this intro, a throbbing bass synth fades in to take the song firmly into the studio. “Feel the Effort”, on the other hand sets up a clear aesthetic that has potential. The smooth keyboard tone finds a common ground between ‘70s easy listening and ‘80s synth-pop that delicately supports the heavily reverbed, soulful vocals. The retro feel is perfect; David Monks gives his rueful lyrics just the right touch of bored nonchalance, “I made a lot of bad decisions/ I feel the effect.” Then, halfway through the piece, they demonstrate one of those decisions when they cut to an incongruous solo. While the volume stays in line with the rest of the song, the guitar is clipped and washed in static. It’s good for indie credibility, but it proves a harsh segue into the more uplifting bridge that follows. While the song eventually finds its way back to the original chorus, it’s a Franken-spliced composition that closes the album on a sour note.

That’s not to say that Forcefield is full of mediocre tracks; most of the tunes show some nice variation and they’re catchy as hell. The band is adept at playing a kind of post-post-punk, cross-breeding new wave sounds with power pop hooks and pop punk drive. It’s telling that Tokyo Police Club is at their best when they break from their pop quest, with tracks like “Argentina (Parts I, II, III)” and “Gonna Be Ready.” The first is a sprawling eight and half minute song cycle that kicks off the album. The galloping pop-punk start is a rallying cry that sets up the tight, close-harmony vocals. Obliquely recounting a romantic connection that begins with worship from afar and ends in self-recrimination, the tune flows smoothly through a roller coaster ride of moods. The band pulls off some subtle tricks to drive the narrative, like using a dynamic drop to create an audible sense of distance for a flashback interlude. The regretful finish, with Monks realizing that he’s been a jerk, is a nice change from the usual flow of this kind of story. I don’t even mind that I can’t really follow his logic when he sings, “Cause if I had known that you were only here for the weekend/ Cause if I had only known what you were thinking/ I would have been so, so, so, so much nicer.

“Gonna Be Ready” similarly satisfies without the same grand scope. The thrashy new wave intro/chorus is a splash of discordant cold water that balances the stripped down, moody verses. While it’s a great song, it’s not a pop masterpiece. Instead, it’s a sign of what the band does best and, actually, what they’ve done well before. I don’t begrudge Tokyo Police Club for embracing their pop side, but 2010’s Champ made a better case for the band’s artistic merit.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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