(Last Gang; 2008)
By Conrad Amenta | 14 May 2008
Toronto’s Crystal Castles have been enjoying the benefit of not just the kinds of hype of which sometimes only that city seems capable, but a sustained word of mouth that has nourished their brand through the significant wait time to this, their debut. Like Beck’s Gameboy Variations novelty EP before them, the Castles easily blip and bloop their way along with a simulated anachronisticity of tones that renders them instant kitsch—appropriate given their name comes from a She-Ra cartoon and some of their music from keyboards with the guts of an Atari 5200. Their dirty pop does give them equal parts accessibility and swagger, but the half-second sample of Death From Above 1979 at the end of opener “Untrust Us” is a telling sign. Like the objects of their commercial shout-outs, Crystal Castles are a breath of fresh air that is just as quickly gone, as clever and cool as those Thundercats and Transformers t-shirts everyone took to not-so-ironically wearing a couple of years ago.
Now we know, though, that ’80s revivalism doesn’t breed the carefree allegiances of childhood brand recognition as much as overfed summer blockbuster bullshit aimed at maximizing profits and strangling content. Even more telling is that the catalyst for Crystal Castles’ hype were singles. This kind of music quite naturally survives a format that demands no more than two minutes from its listener.
The album version of Crystal Castles oscillates between the sheen of vocals obfuscated and distanced by effects and the up close screams of electro-punk. More to the point, the oscillation is not a wide swing; getting back to DFA1979, that band’s offshoot/house admirers MSTRKRFT arrived late on a Toronto scene no longer terribly enamored with house. Similarly, Crystal Castle’s self-titled is recognizable and likable, but only by virtue of its simplistic wrap. Its beats are primary; its melodies functional. It doesn’t set out to blaze trails, but neither does it try hard enough to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded genre whose listeners seem primarily interested in glossier and glossier versions of products they once admired as kids. At least the Advantage are half joking.
Compare the duo to the infinitely more resourceful Ellen Allien, who derives as much style as them but with the added virtuosity of songwriting vision. The formulas are nigh identical, but the limitations of that formula are explored with much fuller interest in Allien’s case. Crystal Castles have put together a perfectly respectable premise for an album populated by lazy music that is neither staid enough to chill nor exciting enough to have fun with itself.
Take even “Magic Spells” and “Vanished,” the only two songs that bother to exceed four minutes and thus the attention spans of Crystal Castles’ listeners. They too trot uneventfully through their run times, set to the unvaried shuffle beat of high-hats. On the other hand, “XXzxcuzx Me” and “1991” offer a single idea to arbitrarily be either screamed or hummed over, largely missing the kind of structure a longer span might have required. By “Love and Caring,” ears are rebelling from the treble-heavy twang of sounds without depth, lengths without variety. There are plenty of interesting ideas here, but if Crystal Castles don’t seem interested in exploring them, why should we?
I don’t know if it’s irony or fully appropriate that a group trying so hard to be effortless ends up exhausting. They finally hit a hipster-heavy scene with what should have been a maverick heat-seeker of a debut and end up too tiring to interest most of the hipsters who long ago became bored of swapping their “Alice Practice” 7” on Soulseek. Crystal Castles were doomed from the start, relegating themselves to the kind of admiration we reserve for nostalgia pieces and kitsch, but their debut still seems disappointingly stillborn—simultaneously noncommittal and overlong. There needs to be half as many ideas, but with more vivid color. No matter; there will always be a market for commercial homesickness, and audiences of 20-somethings yearning for that childhood feeling.