Review Summary: Elegant tones and textures abound on this record, even when other aspects are less than thrilling
When the Strokes released their masterful debut Is This It
to an attentive world in 2001, a debate erupted almost instantly about how to characterise the group. Undoubtedly influenced by garage rock and a variety of post punk innovators, from the Velvet Underground and the Stooges through to Magazine and Television, the sound was a little too clean, a little too clinical, for many to even associate them with punk. While widely publicised as the “saviours of rock,” others got around the language problem by labelling them “crap,” but the problem of whether post post punk could really be called punk anymore was never really resolved. With We Thrive On Big Cities
, Irish four-piece Director only muddy the waters further. Their squeaky clean 2006 debut probably qualifies them as the first group to emerge with the Strokes as a significant influence on their sound. This similarity is brought quickly to bear on rousing opener ‘Easy To Me,’ its clipped melodic guitar line calling to mind the unique style of Albert Hammond Jr., and continues throughout the album’s ten short-but-sweet tracks.
It would be misleading to characterise We Thrive On Big Cities
as a mere soundalike, however. Fronted by classically-trained pianist Michael Moloney, Director are clearly attracted to elegant sounds, and elegant tones and textures abound on this record, even when other aspects are less than thrilling. Moloney’s soft, controlled tenor is the group’s most distinguished feature, exuding a schoolmaster-like quality reminiscent of Talking Heads’ David Byrne, another noted influence on the band’s sound, and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. While the tracks occasionally fall the wrong side of bland, there’s plenty of variety on offer between the tense muted guitar chords that open ‘I Only Realise,’ oddly bringing to mind Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself,’ the Soundgarden-like intro of single ‘Leave It To Me’ and the funky piano fade-in which kicks off the whimsical jaunt ‘Come With A Friend’ in the fashion of Daft Punk. While stylistically quite flexible, certain songwriting tricks are overused and begin to grate after a while, the crescendo in particular losing its charm after the first few tracks, and the result is that the album occasionally feels more formulaic than it actually is.
At just ten tracks and thirty-six minutes, We Thrive On Big Cities
is refreshingly short of filler, as are the individual tracks free from padding. Nevertheless, the truly brilliant moments are relatively rare. It rarely gets better than the first two tracks, ‘Easy To Me’ and ‘Standing In My Way,’ the latter a relatively straightforward eighth note indie rocker until it breaks down to a sludgy, instrumental hard rock bridge. Yet, for a band that led with a single entitled ‘Reconnect’ (a title that quite literally screams “use me in a mobile phone ad!”), Director sound remarkably cold at times. While one would expect the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas to launch into a fitful scream or two every now and then, it’s difficult to imagine Moloney or any of his bandmates letting their guard down to the same extent, the notable exception being the lead guitar freakout that closes out ‘Standing In My Way.’ Which is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of We Thrive On Big Cities
, but also one that’s easily remedied, and the album’s achievements comfortably outweigh its negatives.