The Drums: from retro to where?

September 16, 2010

If the Field Mice and Big Country had a baby and left it on the doorstep of Yo La Tengo’s Hoboken doorstep in the eighties, that thing may have grown up to be the Drums.  The New York City-based group does new romantic/twee like the best of the pioneers that came before them.

Having first been released as a digital album and then on vinyl LP, the Drums’ self-titled debut full-length has finally caught up with the dying medium of the CD (it was released just this past Sept. 14, I was given an advance copy by the band’s PR firm for review ahead of that date). Just a few days later, they are scheduled to make their live debut at Miami’s Grand Central with Surfer Blood* in support. The double shot of poppy post-punkers should prove for an entertaining double bill.

The Drums have had a lot of excitement in the press following them, and hearing their debut full-length for the first time, reveals some good reasons why: short, catchy tunes that mimic the eighties sound of post-punk with scary devotion. A flood of bands from the era come to mind at first listen, but mostly those of the mid- to late-era 80s British twee scene pioneered by bands like the Field Mice, Ocean Blue and of course, the granddaddies of it all, the Smiths. Unfortunately, I strain to name more bands because the sad truth is that I forgot their names, as this music obviously became dated for a reason. Though under the alternative rock umbrella, this music was nothing more than pop music—the sort that fit well on a John Hughes movie soundtrack, but would not last to make it to the coolness level for inclusion on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.

And there lies the rub for the Drums. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of these songs, as they have a self-aware wittiness and a supreme knowledge to the details of what made a song in the early eighties a hit. However, I feel the music might wear out on me soon (hence why I wound up selling my Smiths, Ocean Blue and Field Mice CDs a long time ago). I am still playing the band’s album in the car CD player (several times already now, at that). It’s just that, based on experience, these kinds of albums don’t last long in my heart.

There is great energy to the first few cuts of the album (check out the new video for the opening cut in the video for “Best Friend” below, where you will also note a tribute to the minimalism of many a new wave band’s video aesthetic — not to mention dancing):

However, the album does soon grow cloying and redundant by the fourth track. Unlike bands like the Magnetic Fields and LCD Soundsystem, who can explore eighties-era sensibilities while subverting them, the Drums take it all too seriously. The album even has a song that not only recalls the eighties’ sound but also captures the fifties nostalgia that seemed to permeate that era’s culture. On “Down By the Water” Jonathan Pierce sings with Righteous Brothers élan, above a simple guitar groove and steady, sparse, echoey drumbeat. Throughout the album, though, Pierce does whiny acrobatics with his voice like the best of eighties-era singers (hence my earlier Big Country reference, which could also apply to frontmen like Morrissey, Robert Smith, Ian McCulloch, etc.).

“Book of Stories” even has a title that sounds like a song by an eighties new wave band. It has a sonic quality of coming off an album from an appropriately forgotten eighties band, with it’s synthesized flute and dreamy choral melody (often when a chorus appears in a song on this album, the band employs whooshing, dreamy synthesizers to back up the vocals, a trope common in new wave songs). The chorus “I thought my life would get easier, instead it’s getting darker … without you” also captures the classic doom and gloom of naïve teenage heartache (after you’ve grown up from that sentiment you realize that it will always get better… well, unless you’ve committed suicide).

With a runtime under 45 minutes, the band keeps the songs short and punchy. But it still feels like it wears on the listener, as an inherit shallowness to the music does not move this kind of sound to another level that honestly merits the critical praise that has followed this group. These guys are fine craftsmen, as they show an adept and heartfelt awareness of their roots. It just never rises to a level beyond imitation. Here’s to hoping that someday it will on a follow-up album.

*Surfer Blood, who are no strangers to Grand Central’s stage, originally hail from West Palm Beach and are actually on tour with the Drums.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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