By Aaron Abel
Death From Above 1979 is back! After one great album, 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, and a few EP’s, they split up, leaving their fan-base wanting more. I can remember listening to their music when I was in high school after they’d broken up, constantly lamenting the fact that I’d never been able to see them live. Their new album, The Physical World, was released this Tuesday on Last Gang Records. Once again, Sebastien Grainger (Drums, Vocals) and Jesse F. Keeler (Bass, Keyboards) give us the fuzzy punk bass riffs, dancey technical drum beats topped with raunchy lyrics and haunting harmonies, but maybe with a little less edge than you remember.
The album opens with “Cheap Talk” and gets right down to business with the dirty crackling fuzz-fest and drum fill intro we all know and love. The 16th-note hi-hats and cowbell/woodblock touches lay the foundation beneath the dancey bass on the up-beats. The synth is inserted minimally, yet effectively. We get the familiar raunchy suggestive lyrics we’re used to.
“She uses her body to say the things she can’t say.”
Once we get to the hook, there’s something catchy that feels totally new, yet not too uncharacteristic of their earlier work. The newest element I’ve felt is their accessibility and more conventional structure. There are melodies actually working with the instruments, not just screamed over them. It’s more polished. The drums aren’t overly compressed, vocals are still distorted, and that bass is still making sounds that would make your parents shake their head in disappointment. The driving quarter note snare hits over punk-influenced bass lines, all escalating into to crash cymbals on every beat.
The next track, “Right on, Frankenstein!” might be my favorite. It’s got this old school Misfits-esque intro.
“I don’t wanna die, but I wanna be buried. Meet me at the gates of the cemetery.”
The bass solo two minutes and ten seconds in caught me way off guard. The percussive elements of the bass create such a solid groove, then the drums come in and there’s a totally different feel. It’s an epic, anthemic conclusion to the track.
An interesting theme I noticed in The Physical World was vulnerability. The tracks “Virgins,” “Crystal Ball,” and “White is Red” each have their own moments of sincerity. “Virgins” opens with a Black Keys-y riff and Grainger on vocals singing “Where have all the virgins gone?” and he actually sounds sincere. The song has a driving bass lick that keeps the pace moving over the usual straight forward punk-dance drum beat.
“Crystal Ball” continues that lyrical theme of vulnerability that we see throughout this album.
“If my heart bruises, everyone loses.”
Instrumentally, I’m all about this track. However, this is uncharted territory for DFA1979 lyrically, and I’m not sure if I buy it. I’m so used to sensual, gritty lyrics from them, this seems a little tame. At the same time, it’s hard to accuse their lyrics of being dishonest. Take this video from a performance back in 2007. The banter for the intro to the songs is totally punk rock. In no world would I be expecting these guys to be described as anything close to tame.
“If I can’t see the end, I can’t see the beginning. There’s no crystal ball to see a happy ending. I know I can’t say that this will last forever, but I need you to know, I don’t want you to go
The band covers even more new ground on the track “White is Red,” which tells a story about young love lost. The bass riff is definitely catchy and it’s by no means a flop, but the narrative is a little trite. I can see how some fans might not be all about this song, as it’s way more traditional than their other material. The chorus takes us back to their familiar punk rock form, but the verse is teetering on the line of pop. This track felt like a doo wop ballad that’s rough around the edges, like Bruce Springsteen collaborating with Sonic Youth, which in theory should be amazing, but falls just short.
“Always On” has elements that are totally reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age’s album Songs for the Deaf (an AWESOME album, by the way): that triplet feel, behind a slightly distorted vocal track in which you can’t help but hear a touch of Josh Homme’s timbre. The vocals get taken up a notch with some falsetto later on in the song (blended with synth), and they absolutely nail it.
The two singles that were released before the album, “Trainwreck 1979” and “Government Trash,” are both solid. “Trainwreck 1979” is aggressive enough, the drums are a little more isolated and it works. The back up “oohs” in the chorus are a great touch. This song, to me, sums up the progression of Death From Above from their last album to this current release. It has the same rough elements, but with touches of piano and backup vocals. It doesn’t sound like it was recorded all in one afternoon. “Government Trash” has probably the heaviest intro. This track is most like their older material, but still explores new options with the back up vocals and catchy refrains.
As much as I enjoy this album, I will say there’s a cloud of reluctance over the whole thing. It feels made to order instead of slow-cooked. Their first album seemed effortless, a take it or leave it approach. I’m used to watching them play on TV on some late night talk show the same night some movie star is interviewed about their upcoming film. Once DFA takes the stage, there are fake smiles from the talk show host every time the camera shows him throughout their performance. The host is visibly discomforted, like Ed Sullivan on his show when Jim Morrison shouts the banned lyrics to “Light My Fire”. This is a good follow up to a GREAT first album. It’s not on the same level as You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine and there’s nothing wrong with that. I love what they’ve done from an arrangement point of view–the back up vocals, additional percussive elements, refined song structure, and absolutely fiendish bass effects. I don’t think the record truly suffers for being more middle-of-the-road, I just worry that a large chunk of their existing fans won’t listen to this album more than once or twice. The worst crime is that this album will help the dreaded words “I liked their first album better” live on in the hearts of pretentious listeners everywhere. But if you’re not one of those types of listeners, this album is a very worthy listen.
From the Philadelphia suburbs, Aaron Abel is a musician, lover of jalapeno peppers, and avid whiskey drinker. You can check out his own band right here.