The thin line between love and hate is just one in a series of similarly narrow borderlands. There's also the thin line between art and pornography, the thin line between research and plagiarism, and today's topic: the thin line between being eclectic and simply being wildly uneven, as exemplified by We Are A&C.
Last year's Music for Imaginary Films reinforced the fact that Gerry Arling and Richard Cameron have a solid handle on all things amusing and eccentric, as well as a penchant for genre hopping. It also gained them a great deal of notoriety in their native Holland, where the album won the prestigious (to people in Holland, at least) Pop Prize. Time spent in the public eye apparently proved unsettling to the duo, who commissioned the creation of their own Ananova-like digital avatars to handle the overflow of public appearance requests and other tiresome "public eye" matters. Dubbed AC/3D, they appear on We Are A&C's cover...and may also have written a few of the album's songs. We'll discuss that later.
Arling and Cameron put a lot of stock in their ability to combine sounds, genres and concepts in new and interesting ways; they even assert this in the disc's title track, which serves as a sort of Arling and Cameron manifesto (more on that tune shortly). Without a doubt, We Are A&C boasts some quirky classics. "B. B. Electro", for instance, is an irresistibly punchy, scratch-enhanced techno instrumental, livened by a sampled horn section. It's good, but it's easily surpassed by "Dirty Robot", a fleshed-out new wave duet between an attractive-sounding (but reticent) young woman and a love-crazed automaton. As our own Irving Bellemead, a well-known fan of songs about robots, will tell you, any song with a call-and-response chorus of "You're a dirty robot." / "I'm a dirty robot." pretty much justifies the album's price on its own. "Dirty Robot" is the disc's European single, and I sincerely hope that dances are being invented in its honor. Elsewhere, the smooth, soulful and straightforward ballad "Born in June" ably asserts the duo's ability to work in just about any genre -- you'd be hard-pressed to believe it was written by the same guys who made "Dirty Robot" -- while "Don't You Fuck" steals a page from the Lords of Acid songbook. The track's only lyric, "Don't you fucking fuck with me," is repeated at length by a sweet-sounding female vocalist, and will doubtless become a personal theme song for many fans.
Then there's the title track, which is likely to inspire mixed feelings. Built on a looped beat and slow, bluesy sample, "We Are A&C" gives Gerry and Richard a chance to "rap" -- which they do, in hesitant, clumsy Euro-white-boy style. It would be easy, not to mention comforting, to dismiss the whole thing as pure camp, but something about the song suggests that it's more serious than it should be. In particular, there's the chorus, which proclaims "Two fruits from a musical tree / We are A&C." Arling and Cameron clearly love this couplet; it's not exactly hard to come up with something that rhymes with "C", so it seems obvious that they abandoned cleverer rhymes in favor of this trite couplet. They've been performing this song for a year now, and you'd think someone would take them aside and point out the rather negative connotation of the word "fruits". Or perhaps someone has, and they simply don't care. Either way, it's a peculiar jolt that distracts you from the actual music.
If "We Are A&C" was the album's low point, the album would be in great shape -- but there are a few half-hearted tracks that stake a more legitimate claim to that dubious honor. "Coconut Conga" is marred by its new-agey melody and production-music linearity; attempts to spice up the track with keyboard effects fall flat. Likewise, "Ocean Drive" is by-the-numbers lounge music -- pleasant, but ultimately empty and predictable, despite a timely horn solo and some goofy backing vocals at the end. Indeed, there's a three-song stretch -- from "Love & Understanding" to "Sunday" -- that seems to have been written by AC/3D rather than the flesh and blood Arling and Cameron. These tracks accurately capture the zany, genre-bending concept of A&C's music, but lack the spirited unpredictability of songs like "Dirty Robot" and "Multiplication Blues".
Then again, it's already clear that AC/3D may be treacherous -- evil software-based twins, even. The "real" A&C take pains to be photographed in proper "name" order, with Arling on the viewer's left and Cameron on the viewer's right, thereby making clear who is who. However, our review copy of We Are A&C includes a CD-tray image in which the digital Cameron is on the left, while the virtual Arling lingers in the background on the right. They're already defying orders; can a nu-metal album be far off?
In summation, there's a thin line between being eclectic and simply being wildly uneven -- and We Are A&C lands on the "eclectic" side...just. Songs as good as "Dirty Robot" will justify a multitude of sins, but good will doesn't last forever. If you're reading this, guys, a bit more consistency would be appreciated.