Gang Gang Dance

Eye Contact

(4AD; 2011)

By Mark Abraham | 9 May 2011

Reviewing Eye Contact puts me in a weird position, since I’m really answering two questions: is it a great album (answer: “yes”), and is it better than the band’s superlative Saint Dymphna (2008)? I’m tempted to note the New Jack Swing nods on “Romance Layers” as evidence that it must be (y’all know I love my TLC) and move on, but that’s just me being giddy and humming “Creep” in my head.

The answer to the latter question is complicated for entirely conceptual reasons that have very little to do with how Eye Contact sounds, which is very, very good. Back in 2008, the RAWWAR EP (2007) had only given hints on how the band was going to advance their sound, and the shift between God’s Money (2005) and Saint Dymphna was about as epic as any band could hope for: here was a band that seemed to fit squarely inside a Brooklyn fringe occupied by any number of contemporary freak bands who had suddenly figured out how to turn mid-decade freak eccentricities into late-decade dance grooves. Additionally, the title Saint Dymphna had an interesting effect: it framed Gang Gang Dance’s modern brand of fusion in a way that abstractly suggested the album was about female saints and neuroses, and therefore femininity, hysteria, agency, persecution, psychoses, and relationships. The album was by no means a bullet point treatise on any of these subjects, but its title hinted at a deep thematic thread that tied the dance-fusion experiments of Saint Dymphna together in a way that allowed listeners to perceive meaning in its mass.

In 2011, the trail blazed by Saint Dymphna is getting more crowded: HEALTH, Black Dice, the new Battles album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Braids, you name it—lots of freaky bands are now trying their hand at music that is more explicitly danceable and which more explicitly employs the vocabulary of techno, hip-hop, and house than their previous work. And because this is being done, and because Gang Gang Dance did it so dramatically in 2008, and because what is being done is the fusion of just about every damn thing from hip-hop, electronic dance music, dub, ’80s new wave and synth pop, new jack swing, and the more eccentric arenas of prog and noise, Eye Contact isn’t necessarily made better when it begins with the quote “I can hear everything—it’s everything time,” or when three of its tracks play off of the ten-year-old’s game of “infinity x 3” trumping lesser infinities. I really like the album, but I can’t quite escape the sense that in an environment where many bands are now doing what Gang Gang Dance did Gang Gang Dance is now telling us what they’re doing, making the process of doing it—of fusing everything—about the act of actually doing it. Which makes the far more pedestrian title this album has in Eye Contact also give me pause: it seems a tad on the nose, as if the band is demanding we hold their gaze while they school us on the finer points of the popular music of the last 30 years. I already appreciate what the band is doing, I mean, so I don’t need them to point it out to me, or demand I acknowledge it. And given that I’m already on record as being uninterested in the band’s previous nods to communal conscious whatevers, the way the title underlines an idea that this album is more immediate and real fails to register with me as well.

I’m not saying the band has gotten cocky, or that they did this intentionally; it’s just that the net result of these conceptual quibbles means that the framework for Eye Contact is far less interesting for me than that of Saint Dymphna. But then there’s the other side of this: if I ignore the opening quote, the six-plus minutes it takes the band to build to the actual groove of opener “Glass Jar” doesn’t seem quite so intentionally epic, and when the album does settle into that groove, I’m pretty much just as rapt as I was back in 2008. Gang Gang Dance is a band that acutely understands the possibilities of layering sounds and genres without ever lobbing too much at the listener—the noise never gets muddy, and the synths and samples the band layers on top of their guitar, bass, and drum tracks fit brilliantly together. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Adult Goth,” a stand out track in the band’s catalog that marries ’80s pads, gamelans, afrobeat-inspired guitar licks, ’70s synth leads, and progish moments into a dark, thick, and brooding dance number. Similarly, “Chinese High”—the track here that most explicitly recalls the tone of Saint Dymphna—takes threads from ’80s synth pop, Mike Rutherford bass riffs, prog guitar, and dub to create a brilliant, stuttering pop song before transforming into a surfy confection towards the end. And while I would feel remiss not noting that Lizzi Bougatsos’s lyrics for “Chinese High” explicitly hint at the marriage of “East” and “West,” the track works sonically in a way that defies that kind of categorization.

Which, again, is a real strength of the band. Gang Gang Dance rarely sounds like they’re attempting to sound like another thing; rather, they approach the genres they hint at as small Lego blocks they can combine into a larger whole. And that whole rarely shows the piecemeal construction—the Lego pieces may be different shapes, but they are all the same color—which is something that really sets the band apart. They manage to subsume these ideas into an overriding aesthetic that drives the album as a totality. In fact, the only sonic weakness with Eye Contract I’d point to is a lack of teeth on some of the tracks. The most brash, for example, is “MindKilla,” and while I like the composition and arrangement, I think the devotion of the band to their aesthetic sucks a bit of the life out of tracks like this and “Romance Layers” that could use a bit more grime. Which…Eye Contact is, overall, far cleaner than Saint Dymphna, and with all the ragged edges sanded off, the band does occasionally sound more classic fusion than I think they intend to.

So, no, I don’t think this is better than Saint Dymphna. But I also don’t think it’s just another reiteration of Saint Dymphna either. Eye Contact is still the sound of a band attempting to expand its already impressive palette, to find new ways to spin their embrace of dance and world music textures into something sonically interesting, and to avoid repeating themselves. And in that sense, Eye Contact is almost entirely a success. I’d even say that I think “Adult Goth” is probably the best song in the band’s catalog, at this point. More critically, though, is that Eye Contact works very well as a stamp on this band’s original turn with Saint Dymphna: now that we know that a lot of their contemporaries were also going to turn in this direction, it’s nice to see a band that was once ahead of the curve still working so hard to keep their sound this fascinating.