|BELIEVE THE HYPE? THE KILLERS.|
With the endless influx of information available through every possible source and orifice, it's nearly impossible to sift through all the clutter and hype to figure out whether or not the hot new thing is any *good* or not. We at The Black Table are here to help. We proudly introduce "Believe The Hype," the new bi-weekly column from Tim Grierson, music critic and editor of The Simon. A Los Angelino, he's immune to the whims of New York's trendsetters, giving you a different take on whether that band, movie, show or trend that everyone's talking about it actually worth all the chatter -- rating them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 living up to expectations. He loves it when you think he's an idiot, so feel free to tell him so, or suggest future columns, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy.
When people tell me how much they love '80s music, I agree with them, even though I know we mean two entirely different things. U2, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, John
Paul Simon and R.E.M. made terrific Reagan-era music, but none of them fall
into my friends' designation of "'80s music." A-Ha, Depeche Mode,
New Order, Animotion, Wang Chung and Simple Minds make them weepy for childhood.
In other words, they dig keyboard bands, with their consistent plasticity
of sound and overly melodramatic tendencies.
One shouldn't make blanket
assessments -- and, hey, New Order and especially Pet Shop Boys were pretty great -- but let's be clear about so-called '80s music's most common denominator: It sucks. Awesome novelty hits and the subversive Madonna notwithstanding, the rampant nostalgia for this bygone era's music mostly boils down to a giddy love for cheesy synth excess. But with grunge, punk and rock-rap relinquishing their grasp on the popular imagination -- and with emo almost about ready to do the same -- this '80s revival makes sense.
Truly, The Killers wouldn't be as hot as they are without our collective adoration for slick, processed musical assurance. The White Stripes and the Hives reinvigorated the notion that garages were places to make messy, loud rock; meanwhile, Brandon Flowers and his crew do their thing for good ol' manufactured product. No rough edges, all smooth corners: The Killers perfectly synthesize actual human experience and transform it into an overblown, soulless display.
How perfect that they hail from Las Vegas.
Surrounded by the sterile neon of a city that substituted its compelling strip-clubs-and-smoky-casinos aura for its current family-friendly vibe of a grownup's Disneyland, the 22-year-old Flowers can't be blamed if his hometown's unreality seeped into Hot Fuss, the band's debut. Technically polished, luridly seductive, most engaging when you stop thinking, Flowers and his band mimic Vegas more than they'd probably care to admit. Thankfully for them, artificiality doesn't cripple a fledgling band in our screw-it-all era. In fact, it's probably a huge selling point.
On Hot Fuss, the trappings of sex and youth are ubiquitous. Very little gets spelled out in the lyrics, which is fine, since that makes Flowers' situations more blandly universal. Likewise, his high-gloss keyboard and Dave Keuning's flashy guitar never feel concrete. Rather, song after song echoes the cheap thrills of '80s music's danceable desperation and almost total vacuity. Like a slow Saturday night in Vegas, something exciting always seems like it could happen at any moment, but it never quite pans out.
While there's nothing wrong with big dumb fun, The Killers rarely have the melodic acumen or perverse glee to make much of their Duran Duran infatuation. After all, even if you hate "(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight" or "Don't You (Forget about Me)," or whatever disposable '80s chestnut you can still recall, you couldn't deny their shameless quest for your central nervous system, their utter pursuit of pleasure and/or heartache. Emotions were writ large in '80s pop, but The Killers feel almost too formal to access their own enjoyment centers. The band can replicate the mood of the luxurious bummer or the party night, but they seem empty, as opposed to vacuous. And, yes, there is a huge difference.
This seems to be a distressing trend in the last few years. Whether it be Interpol or Franz Ferdinand or The Killers, our promising new bands mostly evoke the past, expertly mirroring a style or a sound. Of course, all these groups are still very young -- and still deeply indebted to their role models -- but instead of stirring up fresh perspectives on a pretty troubling time, they have shockingly little new to say. In this way, The Killers are in keeping with the carefree frivolity of '80s music. To contemporary ears, that narrow band of keyboard pop has been the only genre of popular music to survive the era. By comparison, R.E.M. and Springsteen may currently be aging, compromised blowhards, but "Take on Me" still retains every inch of its impermeable sheen. Perhaps there is something to be said for the immortality of a perfect single, no matter how disposable, but Hot Fuss, despite its pleasant sparkle and good-enough tunes, doesn't feel revelatory to take very seriously.
Its lead single, "Somebody Told Me," has the frenetic energy of a big hit without any of the brio that makes it any more noteworthy than whatever Ashlee Simpson is up to. And Flowers' use of gospel choirs in "All These Things That I've Done" and "Andy, You're a Star" smack of the sort of big production values favored in most Vegas shows. It's bright, it's shiny, it's loud it's a big pile of nothing.
Even the skill of the mournful closer "Everything Will Be Alright" -- awash in loneliness and beating hearts -- nails only the vague notions of love, the general feeling of a couple looking for any hopeful sign of their future together. Flowers' biggest narrative moment, in the opening track, "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," is a rather drab first-person tale of a would-be killer. And when the cool keyboard motifs of "Smile Like You Mean It" and "On Top" dazzle you, he fails to conjure much lyrical magic to elevate the songs beyond fun diversions. Again and again, '80s music celebrated personality and style; it set the stage for the ever-growing commitment to pop/rock spectacle that we can't seem to escape now. And while The Killers understand these principles quite effectively, they don't seem to be celebrating much of anything on Hot Fuss.
Moods are summoned, familiar scenarios are recreated, the guitar part from "Hungry Like the Wolf" gets bitten. Old reliable conventions are updated with studio technology, and everybody simply enjoys the conjuring of a shared cultural memory. Still, if we're going to get excited by a new band, shouldn't it be one that does more than Xerox the past convincingly?
Believe the Hype rating: 5 out of 10.
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.