Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Churches, or Chuh-VER-Chez, or just CHVRCHES

Day 2 of Rocktoberfest on BOTG...

Every half-decade or so, an album shows up that gives me reason to think synth-pop isn’t the worst thing to ever happen to music. And then that album goes away, and I return to being suspicious and skeptical of the genre.

The 1980s are synth-pop’s salad days, with Devo and Yaz, Howard Jones and Depeche Mode. Even as hard hair rock and rap grew in popularity, New Order and Erasure held out my faith in the late ‘80s that synth-pop wasn’t a total waste. In the ‘90s, it was Jesus Jones and Sunscreem. The Killers and Ladytron (and Ladyhawke) had me reconsidering at the turn of the century, and now, in 2013, Chvrches has earned the genre one more stay of execution.

For all our amazing advances in technology in the last 30 years, there’s hardly a moment in The Bones of What You Believe, Chvrches’ debut album, that couldn’t have been recorded in 1983. The album is like a sonic representation of Back to the Future, simultaneously sounding a few years ahead of the modern musical curve and also stubbornly regressive. Maybe it’s both, and maybe it’s neither.

Yaz’ Upstairs at Eric’s.
Erasure’s The Innocents.
Jesus Jones’ Doubt.

Chvrches’ debut stands a legit chance of joining that pinnacle in my personal all-time favorite synth-pop albums. The first time I heard “Recover” late last spring, they had my attention, and despite my misgivings, they managed to put together a 12-song set that, more often than not, lives up to their hype.

The first seven songs, simply put, bring it. (“Bring it” is the strongest descriptor I can offer for anything that is so utterly drowning in synthesizers.) They cram your ears with bleep-and-chirp pop brilliance, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this band is brand spanking new. The song “Lungs,” the strongest moment of the second half, manages to pile up a mash-up quality of sounds and grunts and heavy synthed-out bass riffs into a monster burger of a pop song.

Don't get me wrong here. If you hate synthesizers, if you have never heard a synth-heavy song that gave you pleasure, I doubt Chvrches will be your Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It won't, pardon the pun, miraculously inspire you to get churched up. But if you can be swayed, they're worth a few minutes of your time.

Chvrches are often compared to Phoenix and Passion Pit, and for the life of me I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s just a question of taste, and perhaps I have none, but Phoenix and Passion Pit don’t hold a candle to this Scottish trio. The former two might fly their oddball and freak flags a little higher and prouder, but that doesn’t make for better or more consistently impressive music. It just makes them weirder.

“We Sink” might eventually end up as my favorite song on the album. Trapped between their first two singles, the middle in a 3-song set about miserable, dysfunctional, destroyed relationships with a hurt girl still throbbing with bitterness in the aftermath. The chorus goes:

I’ll be a thorn in your side, ‘til you die
I’ll be a thorn in your side, for always
If we sink, we lift our love.

I have absolutely no idea what that last line means. But she means it, dadgummit. I hope that poor boy crossed the pond after breaking her heart, because now she can afford to hunt him down. She might sound small and frail, but you get the sense she might play dirty in matters of the breaking heart.

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