2004. Freedom was totally flourishing in Iraq. Johnny Ramone, Dimebag Darrell and Ol’Dirty Bastard died, each in their unique way. It was a real stupid election year. On the upside, a young Canadian garage-punk band consisting of a bassist/keyboardist (Jesse F. Keeler) and a drummer/vocalist (Sebastien Grainger) released their first album. Originally known as Death From Above, the band was put through the legal wringer early on due to a non-affiliated music label already using that name. Forced to change their handle, the duo took a now familiar tactic used by just about everybody who has ever tried to make a new user name/email address and found the desired word(s) occupied: they tacked on a number. For several reasons (though probably mostly because it’s Grainger’s birth year), Death From Above became Death From Above 1979. And their debut LP, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine was good. Heavy, fuzzed out bass and quality drumming. Fun, noisy, sometimes challenging tracks with enough variance to indicate that these guys were just getting started. Much, much more was clearly on the way. Then they broke up in 2006. So, I guess, bye guys.
Wait, what? New album? Ten years after the first one? Why? Well, honestly, because as I’ve said, You’re a Woman hinted at a thick maple tree of talent they’d only just begun to tap (Canadian metaphors, ya’ll), and probably also because a good band breaking up after one record is stupid. Turns out, the reunion was a good idea.
If I had one complaint about the first album, it would be that it had a sense of musical irony; it didn’t feel like these two really took the music seriously. Consequently, each track felt like the effort of a teenager afraid to really commit to a performance lest his friends mock him and his uncool earnestness. There’s no such reluctance on The Physical World. On the contrary, there’s a real exuberance that translates effortlessly to the listener.
The record starts well enough with the fun disco-beat driven “Cheap Talk”, but it’s with the second track that the album really sets its feet and starts swinging. “Right On Frankenstein” is a killer, killer song. Punky, massive, with hooks to spare, Grainger somehow makes the chorus (I don’t wanna die but I wanna be buried/ meet me at the gates of the cemetery) into a perfect concert shout-along line.
One thing about this “garage punk” album that is decidedly not punk is the fact that the songs are largely given space to develop. Where many artists would favor a simple verse/chorus/repeat/end structure, these tracks often turn into something very different but no less entertaining by their conclusions and in so doing Physical World keeps the air flowing. Case-in-point, mega-catchy bit of garage-pop “Virgins” is a song that nimbly jumps its tracks to land on a deeply funky, head-bobbing breakdown that repeat listens have done nothing to diminish. “Trainwreck 1979” is another chugging, groovy standout, and if you haven’t heard it, just wait. With a chorus made up of the passionately wailed lyrics “I want it all/I can’t get enough”, it’ll probably be popping up in commercials by the handful in no time.
The back half of the album does feature some retreads from You’re a Woman. For example, the ominously titled “Nothin’ Left”, which, while still a cool track, sounds just a whole lot like “Little Girl” repackaged from 2004. Penultimate offering “Gemini” is especially guilty of this; the shrill, swooping squeals of Keeler’s bass are just too reminiscent of the debut-opening “Turn It Out”. These aren’t actually bad tracks at all, but just really feel reheated, and on an album with eleven tracks, it may be better in the future to throw out the leftovers. They’re a decade old, after all.
There’s an air of cockiness to Keeler’s description of The Physical World, telling Rolling Stone “the last record we made was like Pablo Honey, and this one will be more like Kid A”. Oh, so we’re Radiohead now? No we’re not. But that’s not a bad thing. Is the new LP a near total departure from previous efforts, emphasizing electronic atmosphere over more traditional rock-based instrumentation? No, not at all. Not even remotely. This is not DFA 1979’s Kid A. But a solid case can be made that it is the band’s The Bends, a genuine evolution from an ironic, bratty group of musicians into a cohesive unit and an announcement of arrival as a legitimate presence in rock music. Fingers crossed for an Ok Computer.