I should probably make it clear that I kind of enjoyed We Started Nothing. Granted, it feels like that album came out fifteen years ago, but there was something inherently unique in it that I was drawn to. “That’s Not My Name” should have made my skin crawl, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t. They had all of the catchy pop hooks with enough experimentation and diversity that it was enjoyable and distinguishable. I would have hardly given the album an A+ or a 10/10 or anything, but I certainly wouldn’t have slapped it with a 3.8/10 like Pitchfork did. After reading the review, I can’t find any substantial criticism for the album other than the fact that it is a pop album. I’m not saying that Pitchfork has a bias ;), but this is a website who didn’t even review Adele’s 21. Unfortunately, I don’t fully buy into the belief that all pop music is dismissible, so I was somewhat anxious to check out Sounds From Nowheresville when it came out last week, almost four full years since their last release.
As is the case with what we’re seeing Sleigh Bells currently dealing with, The Ting Tings are in a tricky spot. We Started Nothing thematically trashed the pop music scene through a series of tongue in cheek pop songs. It’s a creative gimmick in the same way Sleigh Bells plays pop beats with overpowering borderline comically loud instrumentals. How long can you keep up the parody, though? If you do this for too long, you’re just going to become a one trick pony and we’re going to get sick of you in a big hurry. The opening track would certainly suggest that they have picked up where they left off (in a good way) and still can offer interesting music with a familiar feel. “Silence” utilizes a dramatic building melody that finally culminates in some electronically inspired power chords. Katie White also shows that, when she wants to, she can dish out some pretty impressive vocals. I had a similar sensation to that experienced at the end of “That’s Not My Name,” where I wondered why she didn’t just sing the entire time. I know that they need to keep up this front of “we’re so angry at pop music and the radio machine,” but you’re really holding back a pretty good singing voice.
So that brings us to the biggest problem of the album. We Started Nothing was able to find a happy balance of pop criticism without having White and Jules De Martino sound like preachy wannabe hipsters. This time around, I don’t know if they achieved the balance so well. Frankly, it seems like White is forcing herself to angry than she actually is. On “Hit Me Down Sonny,” again, the musical section is pretty enjoyable, but White utilizes a choppy piercing singing style that ends with her fake shouting “Like this!” I think she’s going for attitude, but it’s enough to make anyone think “what a poser.” So the album essentially faces a crossroads with two choices. It can either give in to its own pop tendencies and sing catchy songs with good hooks and legit vocals or it can keep up the charade of art class warriors fighting the Top 40 with a bunch of Top 40 hits. Sadly, they opt for the latter.
The worst example of this is “Guggenheim.” The song is definitely in contention for “worst track of the year,” and that’s saying something. White does this awful poetry-reading half-singing thing where she talks about a relationship ending (he cheats on her) and finally decides that she is empowered by the experience and will “play [her] bass at the Guggenheim.” It’s an attempt to be experimental and artsy, but it’s as bad a belly flop as I have ever seen. And the album pretty much goes in that direction from there on out. “Soul Killing” is a heartless groove about the oppression of creativity, “Give it Back” offers De Martino a rare opportunity in the lead singing slot (he just doesn’t have the projection for it- please stay behind your drum kit), and “One by One” seems like their venture into electronica.
The album itself is just too skimpy and shockingly barren. After the success of Nothing, they decided to live it up for a few years instead of striking while their popularity and creative iron was hot. They released a single two years ago but then disappeared altogether. That little creation, “Hands,” doesn’t even appear on this album. If you’re going to take four years to throw together your sophomore outing, I think you need to do something a little more impressive than a thirty-three minute discombobulation. The irony, of course, is that my favorite songs on the album (“Day to Day,” “Help,” “Silence”) were the ones where they just made an outright pop song. Maybe it’s time to embrace your style and just be a pop band, no matter how much you make fun of them.