I love it when a major label drops a record like Echoes
on an unsuspecting mass market. There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that some of the people who buy the disc -- probably on the strength of word of mouth from hipster friends, or on the basis of glowing magazine reviews that use vague descriptors like "new wave" and "post punk" -- will have their boundaries tested in not entirely comfortable ways. It's a defining moment, much like the first time you venture a little too close to the deep end of the swimming pool, and the ground suddenly drops away, and you either find that you're comfortable treading water or there's a brief, terrifying incident in which you flail around like a hooked marlin, inhale several gallons of water and rapidly develop a healthy respect for any body of liquid deeper than a bathtub. For some people, Echoes
will be a water-up-the-nose experience...and who's to say they've got it wrong? The eighties yielded a lot of bitter, brooding, intense music, and no-one at the time believed it would one day be an accepted mainstream sound. Now, without a cry, without a whimper, it's being thrust upon said mainstream in a hail of trendiness. Look out.
Yes, 2002's "House of Jealous Lovers" single was a towering mass of dancefloor excellence. There's that thick, sinuous bass line -- so clear, so palpable that you can practically feel the strings thrumming beneath your own fingers. There's that mad, hand-clapping, cowbell-tapping rhythm, and the knife-edged guitar line that stabs through the gaps between beats. And then there's Luke Jenner's wide-eyed, frantic vocal performance, for which he's required to pay John Lydon twenty percent of his royalties each month. It's delicious stuff in five-minute bursts, but after the first few spins, you'll probably heard a little voice in your head saying "This could get seriously annoying after a while." Your conscience may have chipped in as well, pointing out that if you continue to endorse Jenner's untethered sing-screaming, you're no longer entitled to make fun of emo bands.
The good news is that Echoes doesn't flog "House of Jealous Lovers" to death; only once, on the title track (unfortunately sequenced immediately after "House"), do The Rapture bundle the same elements in a similar configuration. "Echoes", blindingly treble-bright and punked-up, is too cluttered to dance to, though its final, self-destructive thirty-second burst justifies the time investment, and may set a new high water mark for major-label-endorsed abrasiveness.
The remaining nine songs rejigger the Rapture's formula with varying degrees of success. Opener "Olio" pulls a bait-and-switch with dancefloor beats and an interesting 303/piano team-up, while Jenner, relatively restrained, does his best Robert Smith imitation. "Open Your Heart" is tepid Radiohead-fan pandering, enlivened only by Gabriel Andruzzi's subtle sax-work. "The Coming of Spring" is far better -- a winningly creepy minor-key outing, rather like one of the faster Bauhaus tunes shoved through a meat-grinder, spurred onward by cascading waves of punchy drums.
"Killing", a proto-rap rhythm kicked forward by a three-note base throb, stuttering synth-cymbals and an earnestly atonal vocal chorus, is a particular high point, as is the glittery, melodic "I Need Your Love", all twisty-turny guitar jabs and disco-ball filigree. However, "Sister Savior" scores top honors; it cadges the best bits of Duran Duran's wonderful "Planet Earth", but does so with the gleeful élan of a top-flight honorarium.
You say you don't give a shit about lyrics? That's good; most of Echoes' lyrics aren't worth giving a shit about. We're talking about a band that resorts to counting-as-lyrics not once, not twice, but three times (in "Heaven", "House of Jealous Lovers" and "Killing"), and of these, only "Killing"'s "One two three four / kick that fucker out the door" comes close to sounding inspired. "Heaven"'s burst of Sesame Street-style songwriting -- "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 / I'm floating in a constant heaven" -- seems particularly weak. What the hell is a "constant" heaven? (And of course, this is one of those lyrics that's going to get stuck in your head, so you'll feel like an extra-big ass when you keep singing it. Thanks, guys.) It seems likely that The Rapture write lyrics solely because their songs don't work as instrumentals.
And occasionally, as in the case of the faux-bluesy, Zep-inspired "Love Is All", they don't work with lyrics. Not even a sampled cowbell can save it. Gaah.
I'm not suggesting that you outright ignore Echoes; if it floats your boat, by all means go sailing; it's certainly better than giving more of your money to Thom Yorke. But before you scuttle off to Best Buy or HMV or Borders, or ask your favorite über-indie record store clerk to snag you a copy -- you know, just for laughs -- take some time to hunt down the music that inspired it. Listen to some old PIL and Gang of Four, or check out a few early Cure songs that aren't on their greatest hits albums. Spin Duran Duran and Big Black back to back. Wallow in the work of "Batcave" bands. Understand that there was a time, not so very long ago, when releasing Echoes on a major label would have been commercial suicide.
Which, in all fairness, it may still be.