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Q: How many indie rockers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: You don’t know?
Get it? No? OK, try reading it out loud and delivering the “You don’t know?” line with a smirk and plenty of contemptuous disbelief. Now add gratuitous eye-rolling and watch as your pals roll helplessly around on the practice-room floor.
The point, of course, is that there’s a certain amount of smugness that’s de rigueur in the indie world. That’s not a judgment, mind you: The scene’s inherent snobbery is actually less a shortcoming than an aesthetic principle. For some, it’s even a genuine point of pride.
And why not? Hipper-than-thou condescension serves a useful purpose, after all. It keeps the pop-music ball bouncing, preventing the rest of us from overdosing on, say, the latest band of pasty-faced neo-garage-rockers to discover the majesty of the Marshall stack. If Nirvana-bes the Vines are on the cover of the Rolling Stone, if MTV is handing out music-video awards to the blues-obsessed White Stripes, and if, as he claims, Rivers Cuomo really does plan to start rapping on some future Weezer album, who could blame erstwhile indie rockers from running in the other direction posthaste? It’s nearly a sacred duty.
Consider the case of Tahiti 80, a Parisian combo whose sophomore LP, Wallpaper for the Soul, has been brought to these shores by the Eurocentric Chicago indie Minty Fresh. On its long-playing debut, 2000’s Puzzle, the band flirted with a Stone Roses/Teenage Fanclub-style guitar attack, even paying memorable—if hardly surprising—tribute to one of indie rock’s patron saints on “Mr. Davies” by imagining the Kinks’ leader as a character in one of his own songs. Now, however, that oh-so-passe approach has been mostly jettisoned, replaced by a bouncing, French-accented soul-pop hybrid decked out with plenty of studio trickery and even more in-the-know attitude.
Frontman Xavier Boyer’s bell-clear crooner’s voice remains Tahiti 80’s most seductive attraction, and the band’s love of effervescent ’60s pop still borders on the obsessive. This time out, though, ticking percussion, throbbing bass lines, and pillowy keyboards are the main musical ingredients, and, if it’s not synthetic, the string section surely got paid overtime for its glossy contribution. Yes, the band still features guitarist Mederic Gontier in its four-man lineup, but, also yes, M. Gontier is sometimes buried so far down in the disc’s frothy mix that it’s easy to suspect that he’s really playing air guitar.
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Admittedly, it takes a certain amount of perverse bravado to name your album Wallpaper for the Soul, particularly when that phrase, with all its connotations of therapeutic blandness, is a fairly apt description of your group’s sonic specialty. Taken as a whole, the LP is a lush but ultimately sterile confection, light and airy in mostly the wrong ways. Toe-tappers such as “The Other Side,” “Get Yourself Together,” and the chiming “Open Book” are pleasantly percolating enough—the last even recalls Fountains of Wayne at their most effortlessly catchy—but, unfortunately, every one of those tracks is also likely to evaporate on contact with your brainpan.
Yet divided up into iPod-size nuggets and scattered randomly across your hard drive, the album turns out to have a handful of keepers. “1000 Times,” for example, connects the musical dots between St. Etienne and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack to especially dazzling effect. It’s a swirling and string-swept discoid anthem that could induce even that faction of the indie world that keeps the likes of Superchunk in business to shake its collective groove thang. “Separate Ways” gets good mileage out of a couple of faux-jazzbo chords by wrapping them up in lovely bah-bah backing vocals and splashing them with trumpets. And, best of all, “Soul Deep” gives Gontier a chance to showcase his frenetic strumming skills. Amid a blur of violins, horns, and keyboards, the man serves up a rapid-fire set of chord changes that sounds nicked directly from a hot ‘n’ bothered Style Council outtake.
As good as that track is, it raises a troubling question: After other bored-with-distortion indie types inevitably join Tahiti 80’s pursuit of ever-wispier antecedents, can a Spandau Ballet revival be far behind?
The answer, it turns out, is no. The Chicago-based duo known as the Aluminum Group has long been forthcoming about its affection for the lite-pop music of the Carpenters and Sergio Mendes. But on its fifth LP, Happyness, the Group also seems enamored of a certain band of neglected New Romantics. The LP’s 10 tracks feature foppish melodies, fussed-over arrangements, and plenty of synth-pop sheen. Trouble is, none of the disc’s songs come close to matching the tacky and dramatic bliss that the Spandaus conjured so effectively on songs such as “True” and, especially, “Gold.”
That particular shortcoming is probably by design. With a supporting cast of post-rock luminaries that includes members of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, the brothers Frank and John Navin—who, in an indie scene a long time ago and far, far away, played in a hardcore act called Women in Love—once again showcase their immaculate production skills, turning in clean-lined designs such as “We’re Both Hiding,” “Two Lights,” and the disc’s hypnotic opener, “Tiny Decision.”
Though the lyrics to the last do get a little gauche (sample lines: “Time fades and she forgets/Her eyes turn from minnows to charcoal briquettes”), the Navin boys are more often just too damn tasteful for their own damn good, consistently pulling back from the brink of blissful disposability right when things start to look promising. They also wouldn’t know a straightforward hook if Burt Bacharach—another obvious influence—came over and taught them how to really play “Walk On By,” a song that provides the template for several tracks here.
Nonetheless, with so much studio ingenuity on hand, Happyness does manage to be something of a minor headphone miracle. On “I Blow You Kisses,” sensuously multitracked vocals vie for attention with Dating Game-style horns and a double-timed backbeat. Elastic bass lines slide up and down the fret board on “Pop” while jangling guitars swirl gently in the background. And “Kid” juxtaposes a bright, syncopated verse with a bouncing chorus that finds John Navin waxing tee-hee sophisticated: “You should be casting your fishing pole/Just as far as a metaphor will go,” he sings, making like a Midwestern Stephin Merritt or something.
He’s not, unfortunately: Merritt is usually pretty funny, but Navin needs to practice his punch lines. Like much of the promising but slight Happyness, they could use a little work. CP