These Are Powers - "Life of Birds" (All Aboard Future)
On All Aboard Future, These Are Powers’ songs distract from the music. Consequently, the record sputters.
Before getting into the album, though, I should say that These Are Powers are a diamond-in-the-rough live band, thanks to a combination of athletic stage presence (esp. singer/guitarist Anna Barie) and an intuitive sense of when and how to make noise. Genre may be a weak descriptive entry point; there is supposedly something punk happening but I hear the hydraulics of hip hop and less often, but emphatically, strains of techno’s more militant moments. Onstage, however, everything is filtered through overdrive, flange and a vibe of not giving a shit, which makes form seem pretty secondary. All in all, I was much more drawn to These Are Powers’ live neon smorgasboard than that of, say, Dan Deacon or M.I.A., with whom they share some definite art studenty predilections.
The high of the live show becomes a hangover on record. The hard, heavy bass kicks and tortured vocals that sounded so good in the carpeted room above the street where people looted televisions in 1977 now make you feel like you have an intractable earworm. Often profoundly unfunky, All Aboard Future seems to take a certain pleasure in systematically vacating sex from everything, from drum machines to the human voice. Things even get, if not quite Jandekian, at least close to Sonic Youth’s more ghoulish work. Beats that seem, intellectually, like they should make your head move, actually feel assaultive – and yet never quite enough so to seem tough. The instrumental textures evoke metal-scraping-metal and mournful wailing, with undercurrents of bassy mud, which I realize sounds intriguing but in the end just doesn’t translate as well as one would hope. Perhaps most unfortunately of all, one feels very little in listening to this album. It is designed to be rough around all its edges, to take the fundamentals of hip hop or punk and to fray them until bloody. But in the end the songs lack the no-wavey thrill that can come from such an approach.
And yet: These Are Powers are awesome musicians; their work just suffers when rendered as songs rather than show. Perhaps this is a good litmus test for a band: your songs are fine as songs, but do they hold up in a context of bells and whistles – pure, unadorned superficiality - where it really matters? These Are Powers fail mainly where it doesn’t.