The Penelopes | Priceless Concrete Echoes (Le Plan/ADA)

cd_penelopes.gifThis is an act occasionally willing and able to dole out small packets of weird, contrasting with their standard workmanlike approach.

 

 

Remember your friend from college who studied in Prague for a semester and returned with an accent and laments of how bad American beer is? Well, he’s back. In music form. Except that these guys actually are Continental, making the entire effect most peculiar. You’d think they’d be better at it.

The Penelopes represent the inevitable death-throes wave of the 80s revival, meaning that the absence of a new twist on the sound means fatigue hits extra hard. A couple of tracks, such as bold opener "Stuck in Lalaland" and "Saved," do all right by taking a page from the M83 handbook, twirling together phased, epic dreampop with crystalclear synths. Singer Axel Basquiat channels a French version of Ian McCulloch and splays over chiming guitars, New Order basslines and thumping beats. Elsewhere, the band decides what it really wants is to be Depeche Mode. To its credit, "The Heat Goes On" does possess the requisite menace, pairing it with an irresistibly clangy rhythm and understated distortion. "Concrete" throbs icily, like Martin Gore at his most creepy and sexual intoning over a steel-cold martial beat worthy of Joy Division.

This is an act occasionally willing and able to dole out small packets of weird, contrasting with their standard workmanlike approach. Instrumental freak-out "Joey Santiago" serves up a frothing cocktail of "Ashes to Ashes" slap bass and ABC’s flashy panache; it’s a dance-all-night rush, consistently gaining momentum toward an unknown end point. Priceless Concrete Echoes‘ centerpiece, as it were, continues the parade with a swarthy, jaw-droppingly peculiar electro cover of the Beastie Boys’ "Sabotage." It’s tough to tell if this oozes cooler-than-thou Euro hipness or if it’s the musical equivalent of Steve Martin’s golf-capped Wild and Crazy Guys, latecomers to the culture club who aren’t nearly as smooth as they think or wish they were. One way or the other, it’s arresting, but puzzling. This difficulty in sussing out the group’s M.O. is a problem with quite a bit of the album, actually. It’s tough to tell if some of this stuff is serious, tongue in cheek, or both. "Long Black Fly" is the poster child for this: it’s full of smarmy vocals and audacious beats, but also rocks hard; you’re treated to killer, flangedout synth bass along with gibberish and rambling lyrics featuring references to anorexic spiders and Taiwanese sex toys.

Priceless Concrete Echoes‘ best moments are those that are neither derivative nor overly obtuse. "Demian" rides the gliding grace of a wispyvoiced Debbie Harry fronting a dance-pop Air, and feels excitably post-retro. Album closer "Your Plan for Happiness" pulls an intriguing U-turn, opting to send us off with a dash of fluffy dancepop. We’re back at what this band feels like it could be, or at least partially wants to be – its a swirl of French vocals (much more fitting to the band’s sound than the second-language English they tend to stick to), giggles and a euphoric swell of synths. It’s the sort of purposeful track that makes you wish the entire record was this effortlessly confident. Sadly, an overall lack of focus strands the disc in a frustrating bevy of muddled ideas. C | Mike Rengel

RIYL: a less laid back, more painfully self-conscious Air; Depeche Mode in the 90s; slumming your way through sleazy Eastern European discos

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