Now to the review of Times New Viking's "Rip It Off."
Quick Synopsis :
A low-fi tour de farce. Pop songs with contrived lyrics and hackneyed hooks that masquerade as a "fuck you" to the polished, overproduced music making its way through the American indie scene.
For the snobs :
Velvet Underground meets the Stooges in a Sonic Youth tribute band on an AM station just barely in range. The vocalists sound like those whiny little kids from "The Wall" when they hit their late-teens. If you like Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, or Man Man, you will probably like Times New Viking. Most bass lovers will hate this album. In fact, most people will hate this. "That's the point, man! You're not supposed to 'get it.'"
The details :
"Rip It Off" is the first release on Matador Records for the Columbus, Ohio trio, Times New Viking. This album is the band's third release, total. The band is comprised of guitarist Jared Phillips, drummer/vocalist Adam Elliot, and keyboardist/vocalist Beth Murphy. Already legends in the Mid-West indie scene, they have appeared with the likes of Mission of Burma and Super Furry Animals. "Rip It Off" is most definitely not an album for everyone. Times New Viking's sound consists of barely audible and simplistic drumbeats, basic yet catchy keyboard melodies layered onto super duper fuzzy guitar, and distorted, high-pitched screaming lyrics that are, 99% of the time, indistinguishable. They are a standard low-fi wall of noise.
I do not want to come off as unappreciative of the low-fi sound. However, low-fi becomes a problem when used as an excuse for bad music. And Times New Viking's "Rip it Off" is pretty bad. This is sad because the album could be fantastic. One listen and you won't be able to get some of the melodies and hooks out of your head. Yet, the album suffers from the band's self-awareness. Put simply, they forced a low-fi wall of noise in places where it is unnecessary.
"Mommy, when I grow up I want to play guitar." "Now Johnny, you know you can't do both." This joke is old, but it is fitting for Times New Viking. I was hoping for a more mature sound from the Ohio trio. Instead, they insist on falling back on their tendencies. Sometimes, silence is louder than sound. I kept hoping for Times New Viking to let their music breathe. Just once. Instead, Times New Viking provides the listener with a near constant wall of noise that does more in distracting from their message than it does in making a profound statement. Or any statement.
In addition, the music portrays the clichés of teen angst that have become all too familiar; not just in the indie scene, but in top 40 radio, as well. The lyrics are neorealistic in the sense that they offer no meaning beyond what you hear: no allusions, no metaphors, and no symbolism. They are the sort of lyrics you would expect from a 30-something creating focus-group-approved music for Hannah Montana in a big, corporate office. The only difference is the talent and demographic. Simple rhyming patterns coupled with simple song structures. I lost count on how many songs have an A-B-C-B rhyming pattern and a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge song structure.
The production value should not be critiqued, here. To me, the album sounds like it was produced in expert fashion, but somehow in post-production they converted everything to mono and blasted it out of an old pc speaker, then recorded it back onto a Sony boombox's tape deck with a Radio Shack 1/8 inch jack microphone. Again, a self-awareness of their sound drives the band's creative force instead of the sound being organic. It is almost forced; as if they heard the mix-down and thought it sounded too good. They basically took a pretty decent album and sabotaged it before people could listen to it. Low-fi does not have to be like this. Go pick up Simple Kid or Against Me!’s Acoustic EP...
This is not to say that "Rip it Off" is without strong points. The final seconds of "End of All Things," for example, provide a glimpse into what the album could have been if they had let it breathe. A juxtaposition of noise and quiet can be awesomely powerful. "Times New Viking Vs. Yo La Tengo" is refreshing, in the sense that we don't have to listen to any vocals. For an instrumental, though, it is severely lacking in musicianship and creativity. Nothing about it really explains why it is on the album. Simple power chords played repetitiously is not an instrumental. It is an unfinished song.
"The Wait" is one of the catchiest songs you will hear this winter. It has a nice ebb and flow to the music. This track exemplifies exactly what I have written about letting music breathe: a clean tone in the intro and verses could brilliantly complement the distorted vocals. It would have highlighted the chorus perfectly. The following track, "Drop Out" is a good idea, but, apparently, the band could only write enough lyrics for one minute of music. It was a decent minute, but it is an old idea and others, even those in the same music genre, have done it better.
The album is book-ended with "Teen Drama" and "Post Teen Drama." Ironically, the first track is the more mature offering of the two. It is almost an homage to Sonic Youth's "Teen Age Riot." However, it could just as easily be a stiff middle finger. It is a glimpse into the supposed genius of Times New Viking. Perfect. This is the epitome of low-fi: a satirical, slyly subtle deconstruction of the musical elements to which we are accustomed. If fucks with our conventions just enough to make us squirm uncomfortably.
Something glaring with "Rip It Off" is a disconnect from Times New Viking's live performances. It may sound great on stage: make people thrash, bob their heads, break things, want to go pick up a guitar and smash it to pieces. Things that work live do not always transfer over onto a record. Some things get lost in translation (like energy and passion) and it takes a mature musician to figure out what stays and what goes on a record. Perhaps Times New Viking is convinced that all their ideas are good ideas and should see the light of day. This sentiment is the very same pretentious attitude that low-fi and DIY is supposed to destroy.
Yet, our "Low-fi Destroyers" fall victim to a cliché older than music: getting by on a name and reputation. It is likely that the band uses the excuse, "We don't want to sell out," as a means of explaining why this album is a replica of their previous albums and the work of other low-fi bands before them. In a sense, they played it safe. They manufactured exactly what their devotees crave. I hate drug dealers, man.
This review is almost pointless. "Rip It Off" will not bring any new fans into the fold. Nor will it upset current fans of the band. For what it's worth, I'll be checking them out when they come to Philly this month. What a band can do "on-the-fly" is what makes them great or crap. I'll give you a review of that show. Maybe my opinion will change.
Times New Viking comes to Philadelphia on February 27th at 9:30 PM. The venue is Danger Danger at 5013 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia 19143. The cost is $5.00. Pony Pants, Shooting Spires, and Car Commercials will also play.