Monday, April 21, 2008

Record Review: Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell

The much-hyped Ontario-based indie rock band issues its debut full-length.

Rating: 3.5/5

They’re from Canada, they released a promising, blog-approved EP, and their sound instantly recalls some of the most loved indie rock bands of recent years. So yeah, the bar is set quite high for the Ontario-based four piece’s full-length debut. Do they clear it? Well, Elephant Shell is like when a good hurdler keeps nailing his trail leg against the hurdles but pushes through the race anyway: his time isn’t necessary as fast as it could be, but the hurdler finished the race, and the results are, ultimately, respectable ones. That is, Tokyo Police Club’s debut is decent collection of two-minute indie rock ditties, respectable despite the sense that the clearly talented band isn’t quite running at top speed.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be slightly disappointed if the Lesson in Crime EP hadn’t shown what the band can really do. Though only 16 some minutes long, the EP packed an arresting, raucous punch, and suggested that Tokyo Police Club could be the latest top-notch Pixies-derived band to run laps around the competition. “Nature of the Experiment” alone kicked more ass than 90% of the albums I heard last year.

Something got lost in the transfer. For one thing, the production here is cleaner than that of A Lesson in Crime, with singer Dave Monks’ nasally vocals brought to the front of the mix and the band’s jerkier, rougher impulses smoothed out. The more polished sound doesn’t come as a shock, but nonetheless compromises the material in some ways, removing some of the unhinged fervor and urgency that characterized the EP. Elephant Shell still finds the band with energy and ideas, but we never get the “Operator, get me the President of the world!”-style gravitas of Crime, and the music here feels somewhat hesitant and confined in comparison.

Nonetheless, the production is only part of the problem. Rather, the songs and overall sonic approach are indeed where the record both succeeds and fails. Musically, while Dave Monks sounds more like Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington than The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Tokyo Police Club will likely draw comparisons to both the hyper emo of the former and choppy garage rock riffs of the latter (and the million other bands of both molds). However, Elephant Shell lacks the unpredictability and unstoppable momentum of LSF’s best work and the truly memorable hooks of the Strokes’ best.

Which is to say, if you tread in familiar musical waters, you better either bring consistently exceptional songwriting to the table, or offer a fresh stylistic twist. This year’s two best indie rock debuts, Los Campesinos!’s Hold On Now, Youngster and Vampire Weekend’s self-titled LP, provide a case for each point, with the former album built on nearly every well-worn convention of modern indie rock, yet succeeding on a non-stop stream of infectious, ecstatic pop songs, and the latter mixing African flavor into the typical formula to create something familiar-sounding and approachable yet novel. While the debut EP showcased TPC’s flair for confident, dynamic jamming and songwriting, Elephant Shell lacks both the songs and the style necessary to elevate the band to the level of their top contemporaries.

At the same time, the album is a very solid, listenable, unoffensive garage rock album that will likely draw decent to high praise from the typical indie listener. And yes, Shell’s best songs deserve such praise: single “In a Cave” offers a catchy lead guitar line and even catchier bridge, “The Harrowing Adventures Of…” switches up the album’s blueprint effectively with a pretty strings/acoustic guitar/bells interplay, and “Your English is Good” finds the band launching a powerful and focused two-chord attack.

Still, at the end of the album, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just the heard same song over and over. Even while clocking in at under 30 minutes, Shell plays too statically and redundantly, and even begins to drag toward the end despite its brevity. Everything melody and chord progression blends together, and while it’s relatively enjoyable more often than not, it isn’t an album that really demands you return to it. The first listen won’t really blow you away, and repeated listens only reveal that Elephant Shell has little to offer beneath the surface.

Still, the album isn’t as much a setback for Tokyo Police Club as it is an indication that they need some time to grow and find their identity. The band needs to find the midway point between the bursting might of A Lesson in Crime and the more refined approach taken here. Do I think they’ll get it right? You bet your ass. Just hasn’t happened yet.

Tokyo Police Club - In a Cave

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1 comment:

A.S. said...

Joe, could you send me this album tonight?