Friday, June 13, 2008

We Started Nothing
The Word, June 2008

by Simon Reynolds

There are so many mysteries in pop. The mystery of creative chemistry: how two talents can mesh sublimely but separately never come close to scaling those superhuman heights again. The mystery of fleeting genius (those
fully-formed wunderkinder whose immaculate debuts are followed by fizzle)
and its converse, the slow-starter (unpromising plodders, like Pulp and My
Bloody Valentine, who get great all of sudden mid-career) . Today, though, the mystery that concerns us is the group with one Untouchably Perfect Song but nothing else that comes close.

I mean, if you've done one shatteringly sublime tune, wouldn't it be a doddle to knock out another half-dozen? Brilliance ought to be like a tap, surely, something you can turn off and on. Apparently not, judging by We Started Nothing. I can't work out if it's foolish or shrewd that the Ting Tings open their debut with "Great DJ," this Salford-based girl/boy duo's one true Godlike Moment. It's like the reverse of the set list that puts the big crowdpleaser at the end. For the rest of We Started Nothing offers a well-paced sequence of craftily crafted songs that rarely get much beyond "good".

Why is "Great DJ" so superior? Partly I think it's down to the song's deceptive simplicity. The guitar-strum that kicks off the tune and recurs regularly hovers just a notch above inane; the chugging groove, pumping and stomping at the precise intersection of rock and funk, doesn't draw attention to itself; there are clever little touches (like that delay-echoed guitar riff that backflips out of the mix at the switch from chorus to verse) but they're sparingly applied and low profile. As for the glorious nagging melody, it's what Ian MacDonald, in his classic Beatles book Revolution in the Head, would call "horizontal" (Lennon's way) rather than "vertical" (McCartney's). There's not a lot of notes, basically. Its
catchiness is all in the rhythm and the feel of the phrasing: the way Katie
White shapes the words in her mouth (pronouncing "boys" as "boiz", for instance) and above all the chorus's pulsated vowel-riffs of "ah ah ah ah ah" and "eee, eee, eee, eee, eee," (an indie-dance response to Rihanna's "Umbrella"?). Not forgetting "'thedrumsthedrumsthedrumsthedrums", that dizzy-making evocation of the power of the Beat That Just Don't Stop. This song is the best tribute to the deejay since Deelite's "E.S.P," and the best rock song about raving since World of Twist's "Sons of the Stage," with lines like "Nothing was the same again. Blowing our minds in a life unkind/Gotta love the bpm" hinting that "Great DJ" is about losing your Ecstasy virginity.

Rhythmatized speech rather than la-di-da singing, "Great DJ" is funky because it seems effortless. Most of the rest of We Started Nothing feels
like it's trying too hard. "That's Not My Name" is over-sung and over-sassed, like one of Girls Aloud having a stab at Cameo's "Word Up". Indeed, I wasn't surprised to learn that White's past included a stint in a girl group. The angry lyric draws on experiences of being patronized by pop industry puppeteers, but the softly mocking crooned bit ("are/you/calling me/'dahlin'?") works better than the chorus's finger-jabbing defiance. Where that song's pelvic choppiness recalls New Wave hits like Toni Basil's "Micky" and the Knacks "My Sharona", "Fruit Machine" harks back to the scrawny dance-rock of the B-52s, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" sounds like a stiff-jointed take on Indeep's "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life" and the polyrhythmic flickers of "Impacilla Carpisung" palely echo Remain In Light.

It's not all punk-funk, though: slowie "Traffic Light" is beguiling enough in its vertical-melodied way, with White singing in a higher, more frou-frou-feminine register than usual, but the big bashy drums (her partner Jules de Martino's original vocation) seem overbearing in this context, like Cozy Powell gatecrashing Virginia Astley's garden party.

Two tunes get within spitting distance of "Great DJ": "We Walk", with the languid strut and self-possession of its loping groove, and "Be The One", bopping along on a boisterous high-toned bassline that recalls long-lost Peel favourites Girls At Our Best. Both songs benefit from more relaxed, plaintive singing. But the closing title track reverts to sinewy discopunk, fine at first but then veering unexpectedly into sweaty funk-rock, all horny huff-and-puff and faux wah wah guitar, unpleasantly redolent of that last album by Fatboy Slim where he tried to sound "live". The Ting Tings work best when they're trying for the absolute opposite: the sound of a rock band trying to simulate the machine-beat relentlessness of electronic dance

Which brings us back to where we started: "Great DJ". A perfect pop single because it's simple but not stupid, instant yet durable (repetition doesn't erode its charm, which is fitting because the entrancing power of repetition is its subject). Its perfection dazzles out of your mind thoughts of what it's made out of, where it's from, where it belongs; for its duration, it seems self-birthed, a genre of one. Most of the rest of We Started Nothing is too easily broken down into its constituents and sources, antecedents and models. That said, while one great song does not a great album make, it's more than 99 percent of groups achieve. And there's always next time.


Mr. Goldblog said...

I can't get that 'DJ' song oput of my head, and my daughter was singing along with me in the car with the 'eee-aaa-err-err' chorus!

So I downloaded the album and it's a one-song wonder.

These guys remind me of that 90s one-hit-wonder gropu NEW YORK LOOSE (or NY LOOSE).

Andrew said...

Just on the MBV tangent, that writer you've been mentioning &- I htink- the lauding of Isn't Anything over Loveless. With the exception of a couple of stand-outs, I really can't feel Isn't A to be anything but dull fare. The hints of possibility within it, but if it weren't MBV, I can't see how anyone could convince themselves of its unpromising ploderiness.

Andrew said...

That could have perhaps done with a listen, or indeed look, before being sent bravely into the public domain. Take two:

"if it weren't MBV, I can't see how anyone could convince themselves of its being anything much beyond unpromising ploderiness(ness).