It’s a shame that the members of We Are Scientists don’t transfer their personalities more readily across to their records: in interviews and features they’re invariably witty and interesting, unafraid of self-deprecation and given to extended flights of imagination and joyous, unpretentious creativity, but as musicians they’re generally pretty, well, dull.
Sure, their breakthrough second album With Love and Squalor was catchy, its frenetic, ADD pop-punk soundtracking the summer festivals very effectively, but with only a couple of exceptions little that they’ve done since really warrants comment.
Problematically for anyone attempting to review it, much the same can be said of the band’s new album Barbara. There’s nothing wrong with it, as such, but there’s little to really commend it either: their sound, predominantly conventional structures of simple riffs and swelling choruses, has developed little since 2008′s Brain Thrust Mastery, and there’s certainly nothing as interesting as that album’s stark drum-machine opener Ghouls.
Thematically Barbara maintains We Are Scientists’ tendency towards introversion, the lyrics the familiar showcase of self-absorption and regret. “No matter what I do, it’s way too late for self-control”, bemoans singer Keith Murray in the by-now wearyingly predictable song about excess Jack and Ginger, castoff Crystal Castles melodies dancing at the fringes to lessen the pathos. There’s something rather teenage in the cloying melodrama of Ambition, its chorus a paean to defeatism and giving up that rings false in music this lightweight: Murray’s insistence that “whatever i’ve been drinking lends a small amount of solace” can only have us hope he progresses to something harder soon, before he turns into Dawson’s fucking Creek.
It’s not that We Are Scientists don’t have talent. Visitors to their website are faced with a glut of multimedia, such as celebrity-baiting animations, reviews of greasy-spoon diners and faux-advice columns, all laced with an endearingly ironic quality that is, sadly, utterly absent from their music. For a band so charmingly immature within their secondary endeavors, Barbara is perversely, bizarrely morose, doused in a melancholy that leaves the poppy hooks and keyboard effects with a bitter taste. Choruses rarely soar as they clearly hint at doing, and there’s a homogeneity to the sound that leaves tracks blurring into each other, songs that sound pretty good in isolation melding into something of a grey monotony en masse.
There are exceptions, of course. Pittsburg has a drama and gravitas, largely the product of new guy (and Razorlight émigré) Andy Burrow’s drumming, that enables it to transcend its mawkish chorus, whilst first single Nice Guys is going to make a great addition to those summer festival performances they’ve got lined up. And to be honest that’s where We Are Scientists work best, the infectious energy of their live shows coursing through an aching crowd matted with their own sweat.
Weirdly, the band themselves pinpoint the problem here perfectly, in the most recent of their ‘advice columns’ in which they address the concerns of a girl frustrated by her boyfriend’s pretensions. ‘Entertainment is not meant to shove our noses into the filthy facts that surround us’, they say, ‘its mandate is to whisk us away from that, to take us to a sillier, sunnier place.’ Coming from California they’d know that better than most, but it’s a rule that they don’t seem to have applied to their own work. Hopefully they’ll heed it before the next record, as it would be great to share in some of that fun that We Are Scientists seem to be having in every other aspect of their career.