Monday, February 04, 2008

Times New Viking - Rip It Off

Times New Viking – Rip It Off (5/5)

Before Times New Viking released Rip It Off on Matador, their first album in the big little leagues, many were questioning whether they would stubbornly maintain their lo-lo-fi aesthetic. Would Times New Viking sell out by not recording on four tracks and maybe even hire a bass player? Maybe it was the punk rock in all of us that thought moving to another (admittedly still independent) label would have forced the band to clean up their sound. These days independents have been making great commercial strides, even getting their bands onto Billboard’s top ten. How long would it be for them to become the new majors? I’m here to say, don’t fear the four-track: all is well with Times New Viking’s latest opus.

While Rip It Off sounds a lot like their last two records, that’s not to say that the band has been completely stagnant. Those who loved the songs of their last album, but hated the recording, will find even catchier pop snippets underneath the static, and those who also loved the high end static will find plenty of that as well. In other words, those who think Times New Viking’s lo-fi shtick is just a gimmick probably won’t be too happy about Rip It Off. One thing Rip It Off is not, is a please everybody album.

The album contains their cleanest song to date, “Drop-Out,” which sounds like it could possibly be played on the radio so long as the station was just barely in range and you had crappy reception to begin with. But that’s about as clear as it gets. “My Head” belies its friendly beats with the mantra “I need more money, because I need more drugs,” which also happens to be one of the few lyrics one can make out underneath the white noise. “The Wait” slows things down to mid-tempo and could conceivably be played at a high school dance in some alternate punk rock universe. “The End of All Things” has an acoustic outro that gives the static a rest for about twenty seconds or so.

I know there are plenty of people who will ask, if Times New Viking are writing pop songs, then what’s the point of obscuring them with a crappy recording? Perhaps the answer can be found in the same reaction some of us had to Times New Viking’s jump to Matador: punk rock guilt. If you start making songs lots of people like, eventually you’ll get people listening to your music who you would rather not show up at the show singing your lyrics. Or perhaps the answer isn’t quite as elitist. Maybe they just like the sound of static as much as the sound of a keyboard? There is a certain aura to lo-fi albums that recalls listening to a friend’s band in his parent’s garage back in high school. Just because technology has reached the stage where musicians can do just about anything, doesn’t mean they should actually do just about anything. There are those of us who think four tracks are plenty for a rock album. There’s a reason no one actually sits through an entire ELO record anymore.

Whenever a band makes a jump to a bigger label the speculation about where they’re headed begins. Rip It Off gives several clues. The band’s songwriting has been recalibrated for more hooks per song (although nothing tops “Teenagelust!” from their last album). Does this mean one day they might stop sounding like they recorded at the bottom of Lake Erie? Their most pertinent audio and geographical forebears, Guided By Voices, eventually succumbed to the sins of a big studio album. Will Times New Viking someday make their own Isolation Drills? Perhaps, but until then I’ll be perfectly happy for Times New Viking to bang out a couple more albums that pack sixteen songs into a sardine-can-sized half-hour.

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