Review Summary: Socially awkward? Want a boyfriend? Don't like music much? This album is for you.
In America, you have 'O.C. indie', a genre of music dedicated to skimming the surface of the zeitgeist and summing it up for people who don't really care about music. People for whom Phantom Planet, The Killers, Jem, and The Reindeer Section can be placed on the same level as Interpol, Eels, and Modest Mouse. In the UK, we have 'Hollyoaks indie' and its ugly younger sister, 'Skins indie', both of which work on the same principle. Subtle differences include the fact that we automatically disqualify anything that could ever be used as a series finale tearjerker on House or Grey's Anatomy, and that we're only too fond of playing songs with working class accents and mindless references to uninteresting facets of popular culture and everyday life (observe Reverend & The Makers - 'Now that she's older/As the embers of romance/Rise to mortgages and 'lecky bills/Being comfortable and that'). Importantly though, because Hollyoaks refuse to employ anybody who isn't ridiculously good-looking (and therefore everybody looks American), all the music must include some kind of patronizing nod to the dance culture which produces all those songs that top the charts all across Europe and never make it to the US. Affirmation of national identity or some bollocks.
Cansei de Ser Sexy reside some 5,600 miles away from the UK, roughly 100 miles further than The Gossip, yet these two bands have done more to cement and popularize the genre of Skins indie than anyone else. Both could be mistaken for dance music if you squint from a distance, both make music you can only really dance to in an awkward way, both survive entirely upon irony, and crucially, both bands are fronted by ugly girls. It's music that's tailored so perfectly to one specific target audience - socially awkward teenage girls who God paid short shrift in the looks department, and for whom shows like Hollyoaks and Skins look like some kind of utopian ideal - that it's no wonder CSS became such a big cult band so quickly. With frontwomen like Beth Ditto and Lovefoxxx, how could they not be? These women are icons to this audience, because they present a world in which fat, hairy women can be sex symbols. Nobody in the world is actually jealous of Beth Ditto, but when she sings "Jealous Girls", that doesn't matter - it convinces her fans that all the people who ignore and dismiss them are just jealous too, and that's a powerful message. Similarly, nobody actually wants to have sex with Lovefoxxx, but when she put those three Xs at the end of her name and decided to write her first single about making love, she made her fans feel like sex gods themselves. I mean, the band is literally called 'I got tired of being sexy'. Come on.
Not that this says much about their music. Perhaps that's for the best. If one is tempted to be cynical about the image CSS have put forward for their fans - or at least the way that image has been molded by their PR people - then they will probably explode with disenchantment at their music. On Donkey
- which is a more polished, streamlined follow-up to Cansei de Ser Sexy
, which removes anything remotely confrontational from the blueprint of that album - one can hear the traces of just about every band who's been cool at any point over the past 6 years. The Strokes, Radio 4, Interpol, Klaxons, Hadouken!, Ladytron, Kasabian, Lily Allen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MIA, Art Brut, Bloc Party, Le Tigre, The Rapture, New Young Pony Club, Shi
tdisco, Hot Chip, MGMT, Crystal Castles, Juliette & The Licks, The Ting Tings, The Gossip, Kate Nash, Arctic Monkeys, The Zutons, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, !!!, The Sunshine Underground, VHS or Beta, Moving Units, LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, Fujiya & Miyagi, Does It Offend You Yeah?, The Vines - traces of all these and more can be found on this album. In a way that's to be respected - as a patchwork of 'cool' the effect is dizzying, and to a person not familiar with the majority of these reference points CSS will no doubt seem like an incredible band. And yes, if being 'cool' matters to you, or if you're just looking for something that you can put on at a party that won't upset anyone, by all means buy Donkey
. It'll slot in very nicely next to your Girl Talk CD.
The problem is, once you can see through all this, there's just no content here. I understand that nobody comes to a CSS song looking for any kind of insight, but that doesn't excuse "Move" - a ninth-rate rewrite of the music from the Pixies classic "Dig For Fire", with such lyrical gems as 'derp derp derp derp' and a melody stolen from the Sonic Adventure soundtrack - from being possibly the most vapid thing released all year. "Left Behind" actually feels poignant in the context of the album, for no other reason than it employs Rule #2 of the Beginner's Guide to Songwriting - if you want something to sound more emotional, namedrop a month, season, or town. Here it's Helsinki, for some reason. Elsewhere it's mostly rubbish attempts at sexual metaphor. "I Fly" is just outright creepy, presenting the image of Lovefoxxx as a fly who comes in through your bedroom window and then flies down your throat. Eww. Oh yeah, and there's seriously embarrassing attempts at being cocky, too. The eighth line on the album is 'Fu
ck with us, we're CSS!'. Great, but the line immediately before that is 'All this mess comes from your ass'. lol wut. The highlight is "Let's Reggae All Night", and even that song nearly comes unstuck because the title is so eminently hateable coming from a band like CSS.
In fairness, Donkey
doesn't contain anything outright offensive, which places them several notches above some of the bands who occupy a similar place in the musical and cultural spectrum. As background music, this is perfectly fine, because the sheen that has been put on everything is pleasant enough. You might even catch yourself dancing to it, in a fat-chick-at-pound-a-pint-night way. Problem is, this album has no real rhythmic drive, no grit, no memorable melodies or lyrics, no invention, and no subversive underbelly. It fails as dance, as rock, as pop, and as art-rock or art-pop. Really, should we be settling for an average, inoffensive midpoint between all these, given all the music that exists in the world?