Review Summary: Lo-fi never sounded more adequate.
They say Necessity is the mother of Invention. That’s probably true enough, but that can’t be where the family tree ends. After all, Necessity must be at least aunt or cousin to another psychological state or two. And Necessity’s flighty mate Desire has probably sired a few bastard children in his time. Point being, somewhere down the bloodline, Necessity must be related to Adequacy, which must make for nice conversation when nous abstracts have their annual family gatherings.
A product of one of those imaginary conversations for your consideration: Lo-fidelity, a musical non-genre that seems to stem from an aesthetic decision that roughly boils down to the statement, “Well, I had to do it and *** if that’s not good enough.”
Naturally, pop music being cyclical as it is, lo-fi seems primed to resurrect itself in the wake of the twenty-some-odd anniversary of its inception. A new generation brought up on the secondhand cassette culture of their older brothers is coming of age and with it, a new slew of four-track devotees, wunderkind pop amateurs and other assorted oddballs who probably shouldn’t be allowed near a real studio at any cost.
To some, it must be a truly mystifying phenomenon. To those folks, Times New Viking and Rip It Off are probably best ignored. To the initiated, however, the trio has become a modest poster child for homespun, do-it-yrself rock and roll. That reputation has facilitated the band’s move from noisy Siltbreeze Records to indie powerhouse Matador.
Despite the label change though, in effect, very little has changed. The band’s paper thin production aesthetic and the strident simplicity of their approach to songwriting remain. They never stray far from a ramshackle blend of power pop and weirdo punk. There’s still zero bottom-end to these tunes; keyboardist Beth Murphy provides the closest thing resembling a bass line, but is generally overpowered by the serrated histrionics of guitarist Jared Phillips. And last but not least, Adam Elliott’s primitive rock and roll thudding completes the reliable attack which, by all accounts, can’t be described as less than hostile.
The hostility of Rip It Off (or any Times New Viking release for that matter) is, however, in complete contrast to their songs that lurk beneath the sludgy muck. Like lo-fi predecessors Guided by Voices
, Half Japanese
or Beat Happening
, at the very core of Times New Viking’s abrasive affectation is a pop urge that refuses to be denied. Tunes like “The Wait,” “The Early ‘80s” and the descriptively titled “Times New Viking vs. Yo La Tengo,” all have a disturbed catchy charm. Doubly so for tracks where Beth Murphy takes the lead vocal like the almost beautiful “Another Day.”
The key difference between these Vikings and their pop-minded forerunners lies in the aforementioned devotion to particularly rough-edged manifestation of the lo-fidelity aesthetic. After all, even when those musicians had no other means than the recording techniques presented, those guys still generally sound less confrontational than anything on Rip It Off. The band loves to indulge in a sound that plainly references Lou Reed's aggravating guitar squalls on "I Heard Her Call My Name" to the point that Uncle Lou might wanna consider filing suit.
Rip It Off never sounds overly studied, which isn’t a remarkable feat for a lo-fi band. But the band’s unintentionally (or purposely, hell if I know) creates an interesting point of contention for future releases; for Times New Viking to discard the lo-fi veneer at this point would probably be tantamount to blasphemy for the band’s supporters, and could very well result in the alienation of whatever fanbase the band has so far established. Then again, it didn’t hurt John Darnielle that much.
Frankly, the sound suits them. Make no mistake, lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi is a gimmick as much as any other. But for some immediately inexplicable reason, it’s a gimmick that’s forgivable when applied to two minute songs, three-chord riffs and pummel-happy drumming. At their best, Rip It Off shows that Times New Viking hasn’t developed much further than quality Robert Pollard
aping. But Beth Murphy makes for a mighty powerful secret weapon. There’s a comforting homeliness to all the sub-garage airs. These tunes have been rolled in the dirt, set ablaze, tossed in the river, mixed with the sewage and placed on the altar of sufficiency. Hooray!