Scanners | Violence is Golden (Dim Mak)

Chalk this release up under "pleasant surprises": an album of high-wire drama kept balanced by sound pop dynamics and glossed over with a new-wave sheen.

 


First of all, allow me to be frank. I don't own a Pretenders album. And while some rabid followers of Chrissie Hynde and Co. are probably already calling for the revocation of my pretentious music critic license, perhaps my ignorance shall serve me well in this particular review. For whatever reason, the music press seems to have saddled Scanners with the label of "Pretenders pretenders" or perhaps "the Pretenders on acid!" Graciously, I'm freed from the burden of going through the typical RIYL motions with this group, parsing every wail of singer/bassist Sarah Daly in search of Hyndesque tones, and so on.

Really, my greatest concern on first blush was that ridiculous cover art and the punny title that adorned it. The grayscale presentation, the melodramatic bloody tears-surely I was in for an exercise in goth-by-numbers. But as they always taught us in grade school, "don't judge a band by its corporate packaging," or something like that. Chalk this release up under "pleasant surprises": an album of high-wire drama kept balanced by sound pop dynamics and glossed over with a new-wave sheen.

Album opener and tone-setter "Joy" gives us 30 seconds of build, a suspenseful mix of ambiguous vocal samples and brooding synth. When the band kicks in to break the tension, the song reveals its true identity as a fairly straightforward loud-soft rocker, with dance flourishes here and there. Daly's lyrics draw the most attention on this number, featuring lines such as "my love leaves a permanent stain" and other remarks on the pitfalls of sexual escapades in the digital age.

Regardless of whomever her vocal chords take their cues from, Daly is clearly the cornerstone of every arrangement found here. Like a tenured theater diva, she's demanded to play a variety of moods for expectant listeners: tough, wounded, sensual, menacing, and-everyone's favorite-on the verge of mental collapse. By and large, she delivers, placing herself in the upper strata of female rock leads. Comparisons to legends past and present, however, still have a while to wait.

"Lowlife" gives Daly the most to work with, especially once those irrepressible strings kick in, boosting the sonic spectacle levels about two or three notches. By the time the song's refrain of "this is a low" goes into a call-and-response chant, one can practically envision Daly and her bandmates playing a packed concert hall, dressed all in black. So yes, rather impressive, I'd say.

Of course, an arresting vocalist can often distract attention from ho-hum instrumental arrangements (witness the Cee-Lo effect on Gnarles Barkley's lesser tunes). The rest of Scanners-and Lord knows they're probably already sick of Daly's overshadowing publicity-hold up their end of the bargain, but rarely demand close listening. Still, they also show a solid versatility, and nowhere is this strength more evident than in the whiplash-inducing transition between the creepy lurch of "High Flier" and the wistful, Gap ad-ready chimes of "Look What You Started."

So the band avoids sounding one-note, and there are no absolute Hindenburgs to be found in the track list, both of which are encouraging signs for a debut album. Expect a honed attack and even more nuanced vocals next time around. For now, try to machete past the press's name-dropping and the garish cover and see how the actual songs hold up.

RIYL: Tuneful female singers tackling rock songs

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