Americans in France can’t be a band that takes itself too seriously. Their latest album is called Pretzelvania, it has a song called “Ballad of Brangelina,” and they name check themselves in several songs, which has got to be the musical equivalent of wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re going to see.
A playful attitude can be a great attribute for some bands and turn others into novelty acts. Right now, Americans in France could go either way. With their echoey, post-punk production quality, fuzzy Sonic Youth-like guitars and boy/girl call and response vocal patterns, the band has an undeniable shabby charm. But Pretzelvania can also can sound like the Pixies meeting a kindergarten soccer game: Too often the songs start strong, meander into nowhere, discover a completely different beat for a few measures, and then just sort of end.
Take “Mkele Mbembe,” the album’s third track. Google was indecisive on a possible origin of the name (it could be a legendary dinosaur that still lives in Africa, or a guy who once helped an elephant, and thought he saw the same elephant in a Chicago zoo). The lyrics aren’t too helpful; singer Josh Lajoie—who sounds like a lot like Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes—sings that “You might be a scientist / You might be a venture capitalist / You might end up on a black list / We don’t know,” then implores someone to “shine a light in the heart of darkness.” Not terribly forthcoming.
Not that lyrics are always important. The Pixies’ own Black Francis admitted he usually just said whatever popped into his head once the band started recording. Depending on the musicians, when this same spur of the moment spirit is applied to a song’s music, it can be exhilarating or rapidly turn into sludge. While there are fun moments on Pretzelvania, too much of it ends up in the sludge pile.
“Mkele Mbembe,” for example, starts with a cool, smoky groove of bass and slow drums. This morphs into an upbeat, keyboard-laden chorus, which in turn morphs into a psychedelic guitar solo. But none of it’s tied together very well. Instead of sounding like they’re taking us on a journey, Americans in France sounds like they didn’t practice that much before going into the studio.
The album’s stronger tracks, like opener “Mr. Fister,” “Turkey Fever,” “Mean Serene” and “Liking You,” in which drummer Casey Cook hauntingly channels Kim Gordon for the lead vocal, are all shambling, noisy affairs, but they keep things interesting along the way by keeping the noodling in check.
The goofily titled “Ballad of Brangelina” is actually one of the album’s stronger tracks as well. Bassist Kent Howard offers up a bouncy backbeat and Lajoie’s guitar jumps back and forth between NOFX-style palm mutes and a James Bond shimmy. It’s light, fun and short, taking three distinct parts and clicking them together into one tight package.
The song chronicles the inescapable love triangle of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie with bursts of lyrics that sound like they were taken straight off the US magazine covers that line our supermarket checkout lines (“Oh, poor Jennifer!” “Breaking news / New hairdos“). The shifting tone and tempo of the music brings the silly lyrics to another level, finding the appropriate beat for our cultural ADD.
Sonic Youth made noise into art. Americans in France might be onto something in trying to do the same thing for Attention Deficit Disorder. They’re not quite there yet, but since getting there would require a heavy does of Ritalin, maybe the destination is beside the point.