Brazilian dance-punk collective Cansei de ser Sexy opened their self-titled debut album in a memorably cheeky fashion with the mantra of “CSS Sucks” repeated over and over again. It was a deliciously ironic way to introduce the world to their frantic, mischievous and, above all, addictive kind of party music. No such playfulness to be found on the follow-up, Donkey. True to their name’s translation from Portuguese, they really do sound tired of being sexy this time. It would seem that the party is over.
The shift in tone is apparent almost immediately in opening track “Jager Yoga.” Like its predecessor, it announces itself with a seemingly sly shot of self-deprecation: “Oh my god, I’m so messed up/ I don’t know which way to go.” This time however, not only do they seem to be serious, they would also appear to be right. One can’t really blame them for reaching this crossroads so quickly. After dropping their debut in 2006, their now-signature hit “Music is My Hot Hot Sex” received a major push via its shrewd placement in an ad for the then-new iPod touch. This endorsement instantly elevated them from indie upstarts to Billboard Top 40 contenders, and resulted in the obligatory grueling, seemingly endless world tours. Add to that the fact that bassist Ira Trevisan left the group (albeit after completion of the second album), and it’s easy to see why the group has such a chip on their shoulder so soon. What it doesn’t quite explain is why they don’t know how to use that chip as others have in the past to better their craft.
In addition to its telling lyric, “Yoga” suffers from being repetitive, regressive, and almost dare I say, dull, which is something one would have never thought possible from CSS before. It’s followed by the first single “Rat is Dead (Rage),” which places the group’s dance tendencies on the back burner to take a crack at some Pixies-style guitar venom and a narrative about killing an abusive boyfriend. Heavy stuff for a band that just one album prior relished hating on art bitches and Paris Hilton. But these guys (and gals)’ songs fared much better when they stuck with fun, mindless sloganeering. They start to give that another try with “Let’s Reggae All Night,” which has an infectious beat but almost sounds like the group got bored with it midway through. They don’t make it sound nearly as enjoyable as making love and listening to Death from Above.
The rest of the first album continues on this frankly middling trajectory, as if producer Mark “Spike” Stent set everything in the studio on autopilot. The songs are all cleaner, more structured, and hence more predictable in their progression. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs underwent a similar metamorphosis when they followed the chaotic Fever to Tell with the divisive, polished Show Your Bones, but they were smart enough to still write good songs to balance it out. To add insult to injury, singer Lovefoxx sounds not so much lovably aloof this time as apathetic.
Luckily, things start to improve right around “Left Behind,” a song about forgetting about an ex by getting trashed and dancing on tables. It’s still a step down from the first album but a significant improvement both musically and lyrically here. Meanwhile, “Beautiful Song” manages to effectively channel the group’s touring exhaustion into a chugging rhythm that will sound great on a driving binge mix. The album’s best tracks are curiously buried in its back end. The Tom Tom Club-ish “Move” and electro-acoustic “Believe Achieve” mark a respectable return to CSS’s trademark party platitudes, and the romantic closer “Air Painter” sports catchy woo-woo backing harmonies and a glistening synth break that add up to one of their best songs yet, and an optimistic sign that they may be able to rock the new slick vibe yet. It’s just a shame that more songs like these weren’t incorporated, or that these were at least more smartly sequenced to punctuate the mediocrity.
Kudos to CSS for at least trying to make a different album if not a better one. It’s obvious from this material, however, that they may want to consider either taking the other fork in the road or a complete course reversal. This group is better when they excel at being a guilty pleasure that you don’t have to feel all that guilty about. With much of Donkey, the air of guilt is suffocating, and it should be felt by the band, not those of us listening.