Saturday, October 26, 2013

Showdown for the Guiltiest Pleasure of the 21st Century

guilt·y pleas·ure - something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.

I have four nominees for my Guiltiest Musical Pleasure of the 21st Century (so far):

The Ting Tings
By the strictest of definitions, this band deserves the trophy, since their entire raison d'etre, so far as I can tell, is to annoy the ever-lovin' shit out of any listener with half a brain. Their choruses repeat enough to make Britney Spears do a double-take, like, "Why you stealin' my plans, skinny girl?" Songs like "That's Not My Name" and "Shut Up And Let Me Go" off their 2008 debut hooked me mostly because my then-elementary-aged daughters ate them up. Or at least that's what I tell myself when I'm feeling especially guilty about enjoying the album.

What puts The Ting Tings into another category of guilty pleasure is how they intentionally created a sophomore album, Sounds From Nowheresville, with the sole purpose of pissing off their record company. They can't decide whether they're in on their own joke or have ambitions greater than the only people who could like them could fathom. Either way, it's a mish-mash of the mostly forgettable.

Guilty Test Drive: "Give It Back" (YouTube)

Scissor Sisters
The Scissor Sisters have the gayest music I've ever enjoyed. "Take Your Mama" from their 2004 debut was a study in how Elton John might have sounded in 1970 if he could have worn that Donald Duck outfit with a few more rainbows on it. The first half of the album is insanely bold. They disco-fy "Comfortably Numb" and get away with it.

Their follow-up, Ta-Dah, contained our family favorite, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," but overall the album's individual pieces fail to stand out with the flames of the first. I guess their third album, Night Work, came when they decided to throw every fabric inch of caution to the wind and release what has to be the most publicly accessible early-80's-inspired Gay Pride flashback album I've ever heard. The title track could be the theme song for the gay version of "Night Shift." "Fire With Fire" is a straightforward, unapologetic gay pride anthem. The piece de resistance is "Skin Tight," where the singer addresses the sensation-killing frustration of wearing condoms during sex (unless you want to think "nothing else sliding between you and me" has another definition).

Guilty Test Drive: "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" (YouTube)

The Go! Team
When I accidentally discovered The Go! Team in 2005, it was the wackiest and most unexpected album I'd heard since my high school friend John introduced me to Art of Noise in the late '80s. That a group of people got together to mix cheesy '70s commercial jingles from all over the musical map with poorly-synced cheerleader chants and random special effects sounds boggles my mind to this day. Whatever else can be said, Thunder Lightning Strike is unlike anything I'd ever heard before.

Their follow-up albums, while enjoyable, were unfortunate reminders that a band like The Go! Team can only break a mold once. The listener cannot help but be disappointed when what emerges from speakers is more of the same, which is in reality still quite unique to The Go! Team and plenty sharp.

Guilty Test Drive: "Huddle Formation" (YouTube)

Sleigh Bells
The Go! Team went out one night in 2007, partied too hard in Vegas, got laid, and then abandoned the child borne of their irresponsibility. That child was raised by wolves and named Sleigh Bells in 2008. Where The Go! Team created cutesy sonic treats borne of some acid-inspired Willy Wonka fantasy, Sleigh Bells just threw everything they owned against a wall and recorded it. Most of the songs on their debut album, Treats, are so overloaded with sound that no earthly speaker can manage the output. That sound -- the gross distorted overload of speakers -- is just another arrow in their quiver as they turn the entire universe to 11. It's screaming voices, screaming guitars, drums played by The Hulk, and occasional milliseconds of silence long enough to create greater abuse to innocent eardrums.

Sleigh Bells' two follow-up albums fell victim to a similar fate as Go! Team: You can only sound that unexpectedly unique once. The difference, and the advantage for Sleigh Bells, is their sound is rooted not in kitsch or flashback but in speaker-busting aggression. There's more room to tweak that machine and come out with something that feels fresher. Ironically, I couldn't identify a single song from the first album. It all blends together in a nonstop joyous ear f**k. The second and third albums, on the other hand, aren't as strong on the whole but have standout songs like "Comeback Kid," "Crush," "Sugar Cane" and "You Don't Get Me Twice."

Guilty Pleasure Test Drive: "Bitter Rivals" (YouTube)

Runners-Up:
* The Ting Tings lose because they haven't given me enough pleasure to excuse the guilt.
* The Scissor Sisters lose because a guilty pleasure shouldn't be about the listener's shortcomings or awkwardness; it's not the band's fault or problem if I'm uncomfortable with just how in my face or ear their gayness is;
 * The Go! Team finishes a close second, because they arrived with the 21st Century version of catchy noise first. The guilty part is there, but the pleasure has dissipated.

The Winner: Sleigh Bells
Even three years later, there are moments when I'm alone in my car when nothing will cure what ails me quite like Sleigh Bells cranked to max volume. While their second and third albums can't match the magic of that first time, they pack everything you'd want from their brand of noise assault. My guilt is deserved, my pleasure still intense. 

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