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"That was really something that was happening a year ago," he says.
He has a point. Over the past year or so, the buzz has waned. Many of the Act 1 luminaries are having a tough time keeping people's attention. The Strokes' sophomore LP was met with tepid reactions, Liars' second was critically annihilated and most of the other heavies, such as Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have yet to deliver decisive proof that this sound has legs. What's more, the borough's late-coming stragglers, such as Ambulance LTD and Stellastarr, seem more interested in peddling 20-year-old Casio sounds than in writing anything that might last 20 years itself.
All of which brings us to The Trial of the Century, quite possibly the first bit of evidence that the Brooklyn hip parade will leave us with more than a few new hairstyles and a reintroduction to Joy Division. French Kicks' latest is a clear indication that the band has a leg up on its brethren in making everything old new again. The 11 songs on the record are all shaded with nostalgic, new-wave affectation (heavy analog synth lines, archaic drum machines, etc.), but they never feel like fashion statements. The familiar materials are shaped in unfamiliar ways. It's not like the band is reinventing the wheel -- at its core, the record is verse-chorus-verse pop music -- but at least it's retooling the formula. At least it's pimping our retro-rock ride.
The material on Trial -- mostly written by Stumpf, alone or with Wise -- isn't in the ballpark of Interpol's mope, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sneer or the Strokes' poised disinterest. It's curiously optimistic, lavishly arranged and at times even, ahem, sunny. It doesn't sound anything like the New York we got to know a few years back.
The record opens with "One More Time," a song that combines Stumpf's expansive, harmonized vocal melody with double-time rhythmic underpinning (compliments of Stumpf again, who mans the drums throughout). The juxtaposition gives the party of scrawny Anglos an oddly soulful poignancy. The same trick -- long, whimsical melodies over double-time beats -- is behind most of the album's standout tracks ("Oh Fine," "Don't Thank Me," "Yes, I Guess").
The problem here is the opposite of what bedevils French Kicks' contemporaries: Sometimes the band just pushes things too far. Take "Was It a Crime," a midtempo banger driven by a sampled timpani line and a pulsing synth trumpet. It borrows a couple of conventions from the pop canon -- catchy choruses and harmonized layering -- but if it's a pop song, it's a really weird one. Still, fumbled exploration is better than spineless predictability. Even with its occasional synth-trumpet headaches, Trial is a creative kick in the ass compared with most of the uninspired musical repackaging happening in the band's 'hood.
"There have always been one-hit wonders and bands that have endured," Stumpf says. "We just wanted to ... make a record that was lasting. How long you last depends on how lasting the stuff that you're making is."
Yeah, no shit. When it's spelled out like that, it seems like a pretty obvious theory. But maybe it's not. Maybe Stumpf should share this wisdom with the kids down the block. Most of them still seem to be in the dark.