The canon goes something like this: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Revolver, Skip Spence’s Oar, Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs. Consumed with the proper combination of controlled substances and middle-class privilege, these records will turn you into the Apples in Stereo or Of Montreal if you’re American, the High Llamas or the Beta Band if you’re British. Add the delicious delusion that you might someday work with the Neptunes and you will become Simian.
The London-via-Manchester quartet’s debut LP, 2001’s Chemistry Is What We Are, fell into the trap that snares many groups with such readily apparent influences. Its single “One Dimension” is one of the better nonhit pop songs of that year, marrying The Wall-era Floyd to Beatles bounce and some pleasant electronica touches. But the rest of the album is airy-fairy twaddle designed to fit into that rare space between pop-canon-geek pleasure and upscale-boutique soundtrack. And, as we well know, that particular niche is already occupied by Thievery Corporation and Morcheeba—bands with good taste who make music for people with no taste. Hardly the stuff of a lasting career, though it can be a hell of an audition for an eventual A&R job.
So it’s a pleasure to report that Simian can hold off on hiring resume consultants for the time being. We Are Your Friends starts off downright gritty: Its first track, “La Breeze,” enters on the back of banjo samples, vamps the phrase “Here it comes,” and then bursts into a heavy beat. Meanwhile, singer Simon Lord bleats in his Leo Sayer-esque alto claptrap about how his special wind is going to “blow away all your reason and your sane, sane little minds.” It’s ridiculous, it’s pretentious, and it completely rules.
The same goes for the album’s first single, “Never Be Alone,” whose chorus breaks a cardinal pop rule by making you think the song’s title is “We Are Your Friends.” Between cheesy, fuzzy organ blasts, Lord ties himself in knots screaming, “Well, come on!” and cooing, “We truly believe you’ll love it when you’re here.” The track could be about phonies in the music industry or cult-recruiting techniques, but no matter: The group throbs like a reconstituted Strawberry Alarm Clock, gets its business done in an economical three minutes, and gives us the most insidious vocal hook this side of that ketchup song. “Sunshine” incorporates influences both hip (the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society) and un- (the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’”) with goofy paeans to Apollo. And “The Swarm” uses onomatopoetic strings to give a bee’s-eye view of humanity—though one suspects that Simian’s buzzes might sometimes have a less organic origin.
The band is less successful when it abandons its nerd constituency in hopes of impressing N.E.R.D. The musty, forced funk of “In Between” suggests that indietronica dudes who love hiphop are better off not trying to prove that love in song. Likewise, “End of the Day” is a love letter to Timbaland that should have enclosed a check. Nevertheless, both songs show one of Simian’s greatest strengths: an abiding faith in the groove that’s absent in many of its canon-worshipping guitar-rock peers.
Too bad that zeal for experimentation doesn’t extend to Lord’s lyrics, which are…well, let’s be charitable and call them oblique. By and large, he settles for lazy whoa-dude koans such as “Maybe you will wipe my memory clean/But will you be the one who shows me how to see, to see” (“End of the Day”) and “You just don’t like the way that I live…/ Well I just don’t like the way that you think” (“The Way I Live”). When Simian breaks through its THC haze, as on “When I Go”‘s unnaturally bouncy, mysticism-free chorus (“And will you be waiting/Waiting for me/And how will I find you/What will I see”), it’s briefly the most exciting band on the planet. When the group pays homage to Barrett’s bedsit psychedelia, as on the wannabe-spooky “She’s in Mind” (“She’s in mind/She’s in mind/ Mind/ Mind”), it’s as boring as anyone else with a half-decent record collection. And heaven help the gentle stoner trying to mellow out to “Big Black Gun.” Over a swampy electro stomp, Lord declares that he doesn’t have a heart, “just a big blood clot” and, less convincingly, given his nation’s gun laws, that he’ll be packing heat if anyone comes near his sweetheart: “When they come looking for you/I’ll be pointing at them with a big black gun.”
That kind of stupidity can be unbearable, but the record already has such a serious studio sheen that too-clever lyrics might just push it into serious Zappa territory. Vocals are soaked in reverb and invariably doubled or tripled, drummer James Ford seems to spend most of his time fattening up loops, and dubby sound effects such as time-keeping water drops pop up more often than might be necessary. The genius of Pet Sounds and its ilk is not wacky instrumentation or druggy orientation; it’s that their creators’ songwriting was as well-developed as their production skills. Lord & Co. have started to absorb this lesson, writing concise numbers that are almost as fun to listen to as they must have been to make. CP