"I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same; In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same."
There are two kinds of music fans:
-Beatles or Stones (or Beatles or Elvis, if you're a Tarantino fan)
-Zeppelin or Sabbath
-Analog loyalists or digital technophiles
-For a while there in 1994, people were supposedly Green Day fans or Offspring fans, which in retrospect is hilariously sad
...You get the point. We love to divide our alliances into two camps and hash it out. The one i'm interested in today is
-People who never want their favorite bands to change, and people who demand evolution and progression
Very few people fall firmly on the hard black or white ends of this spectrum; i like to think that most people want their favorite bands to adhere to the sounds and principles that made the fan fall in love with them in the first place, while not pumping out cookie-cutter copies of their first album ad AC/DCium (although it should be noted that AC/DC is awesome). Still, there are hardliners that fear and distrust change of any sort. Ben Weasel used to insist with relentless frequency in Maximumrocknroll (hey, two MRR mentions this week; sweet) that bands should break up or change their names after three albums because it's unacceptable to tweak a band's sound to avoid running out of ideas (note: Screeching Weasel released its 12th album, First World Manifesto, in March). To the best of my knowledge, The Spits have written one song approximately 630 times; when i saw !!! live, i was really into it until about 20 minutes in when i thought to myself "oh...this is pretty much the tempo they're gonna use all show, huh?" and checked out.
My favorite bands excel by and large at finding ways to let their sound evolve while, well, still sounding like themselves: Fugazi's evolution from their raw debut EP to the nuanced The Argument; Poster Children's journey from the post-punk Flower Plower to the new-wave-tinged No More Songs About Sleep and Fire; Brainiac's Nirvana-esque Smack Bunny Baby to the just plain weird-ass chrome-icide of Electro-Shock for President. When Brainiac ended and John Schmersal continued with Enon, they recorded the phenomenally strange synth-damaged art-pop record Believo! before a wholesale lineup change resulted in the more conventionally post-punk High Society (Schmersal was the only band member carried over from Believo!, and while both records were great, the shift in sound was noticeably jarring).
It was this last example that i kept in mind while clicking on Spin.com's stream of the new Future of the Left EP, Polymers are Forever. Since we last heard from FotL, their sophomore LP, Travels with Myself and Another, had just finished kicking their also-impressive debut, Curses, into the dirt. However, bassist Kelson Mathias then left and was not only replaced by ex-Million Dead bassist Julia Ruzicka, but a second guitarist, Jimmy Watkins, was also brought on board, ostensibly so Andy Falkous could spend more time on keyboards. So a shift in sound should have been expected.
Sure enough, the opening title track is awash with the buzz and fuzz of analog synths while retaining FotL's trademark minimalist arrangements and sneering, acerbic vocals (not to mention an absolutely killer earworm throughout the second half of the song that rates up there with any of their previous hook-laden winners). From there, Polymers are Forever runs a gamut of union-standard abrasive post-punk ("With Apologies to Emily Pankhurst" and "Dry Hate"), cartoonishly dandy stomps ("New Adventures") and a disconcerting, creepily blistering gallop (the closing "Destroywitchurch.com"), all crammed full of Falco's instantly-classic couplets flavored with ridiculous left-field imagery, random pop-culture references and, well, snide Welshness (a winning line from "Apologies:" "I fear most women like I fear tomorrow: absolutely/I can't let something as French as fear determine this insecurity").
Upon repeated listens, the EP has grown from "different, but pretty good" to "hella great" to "goddamn brilliant." It's a grower to be sure--not one song sounds alike, so the record may sound a bit disjointed at first listen. And to be sure, the lineup change is obvious and apparent, but that's not a bad thing. It's not as jarring a shift as between those two Enon albums, but it's definitely not Mclusky Do Dallas.
While the reviews that have popped up today seem mostly positive (hell, aptly glowing for some tracks), the initial response to the title track largely indicated that some folks are legit pissed that Falco isn't putting out Do Dallas Vol. 4. Falkous himself apparently went on some Twitter tirade (since deleted, so i missed it) about lackluster response to "Polymers" when the track was posted at Pitchfork, and anecdotal evidence from my own Facebook feed and some Electrical Audio Forum threads have uncovered similar attitudes (my pal Nick Woods: "Why can't Future of the Left just be a direct rip off of Mclusky?").
It's an attitude that confuses me, because as a musician, if my band were writing carbon copies of the song that made people freak out about us eleven years ago, i'd be eager to hasten death's sweet release by taking advantage of Wisconsin's new concealed-carry law and finding a club where i could shoot myself in the face at the end of (what would be) our last show. If you want Mclusky, pull out your old records. If you want old school FotL, bust out Curses. Meanwhile, i'll stay here on the Andy Falkous bandwagon, because he drives it around some thrilling curves at top speed, it's a hell of a fun ride, and the airbags haven't fired off yet.