Their name sounds like an Explosions In The Sky cover band, their new album's title sounds like a Kraftwerk reference: truly, Static Of The Gods give an interesting first impression with words alone. Unfortunately, words are also the thing that drag them down.
If I may play the “book by its cover” card: this album's cover is garbage. It's the sort of thing a freshmen in visual arts would likely produce for their friend's band, a clusterfuck of different colored letters that would make House Of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski spin in his grave, if he was dead. The fact that they had some little yellow searchlight things spell out the album title, legibly, to the lower right makes it even worse. It'd be like seeing that stylistic, incomprehensible graffiti tattooing the available space on the walls and structures of cities, which is already bad, but someone has also helpfully wrote clearly underneath what it says. It's still ugly even if you know what it says; knowing that a confusing smudge of maybe-letters says “Putter Butt” actually makes it worse.
Anyway, the real word problem with this band is their lyrics. The music is fine if unmemorable; an inoffensive, competently played brand of indie rock that sounds like how the generic version of Coca Cola tastes. It's close, sure, but it's missing originality and that certain special something that makes Coke so good and worth the extra 20% of your cash. They even work in some electronic touches on 'Mean Streak' because hey, Radiohead did that and every else has to, right? Things like that and the band's name make me wonder if they put any thought into what they're trying to say with music or words. Why name your band Static Of The Gods if you just sound like Rilo Kiley Redux? Why have electronic elements sprinkled in to this song instead of that one if they don't mean anything on their own or combined with the lyrics or feel of the song? But I digress. I was talking about words....
Every time I've listened to Knowledge Machine, it always sticks out to me that singer Jen Johnson must have brought in her poetry book to the recording session. There's a wordiness and awkward delivery to the lyrics on this album that belies someone not understanding that, while lyrics can be poetry, poetry shouldn't be lyrics. It's not a one-to-one conversion, in the same way that news writing for a paper is similar to but not exactly the same as news writing for TV. It doesn't help that she seems to sing every song with the same style, inflection, and tone. It's all just kind of...monotonous. I wish she would know when to let the music carry the weight, or to stop trying to sound like every generic, borderline-cutesy female indie rock singer who sort-of-sounds-like-Neko-Case-if-you-really-squint-your-ears (yes you can do that; try it some time).
If I'm coming off as overly mean in this review, I don't mean to. I'm past the days of writing reviews of things I don't like to blow off some steam or to make myself feel superior. But when you listen to as much music as I do, it's hard not to be bothered by the lack of unique ideas and poor songwriting of bands like Static Of The Gods. The music may be competent, but it lacks any personality or distinguishing characteristics; the lyrics themselves aren't terrible, but they're awkward and performed with a poet's style rather than a vocalist. All in all, the problems of Knowledge Machine make the band sound amateurish and as “I'm just doing this for the fun of it, not to make a living” as I hope they are.
Though the bio for Venus Bogardus mentions Richard Hell and the band's connection to him, you'd have to be deaf or oblivious not to listen to Spitting At The Glass and avoid tripping your This Band Sounds Like Sonic Youth!!! alarm. From the basic tone/textures of the instruments, to the “male and female couple as main members and vocalists” aspect, to the arty New York feel of the album: it all screams Sonic Youth.
Here's the weird thing, though: it's a really good Sonic Youth rip off. I actually hesitated to use the world “rip off”, since it's a strong accusation and I don't mean it as a bad thing. But there's no denying that fact, especially when the first song, 'Judy Davis Lips', sounds like a Daydream Nation b-side, and the 18(!) minute closing track, 'Brett Smiley Pile-Up', plays like a poor (poor poor) man's version of 'The Diamond Sea' from Sonic Youth's Washing Machine mashed up with one of the languid tracks from A Thousand Leaves. It's one thing to be influenced by another band. It's another thing to sound like another band, a phrase often used in a metaphorical or approximate but not precise comparative way, like saying Visiter by The Dodos sounds like Animal Collective's Sung Tongs. But Venus Bogardus sound like Sonic Youth in a literal, precise way. They outright lift a lot of Sonic Youth's trademarks; I'm dead serious when I say that a few of the times I was listening to this album on the way to work, I forgot I wasn't listening to Sonic Youth. I dare you to listen to the way the female singer sounds and delivers lyrics around the six minute mark of 'Brett Smiley Pile-Up' and not admit that she is trying to sound like Kim Gordon. You can't. Sorry, no. If you can listen to that and argue that she isn't trying to sound like Kim Gordon, you're either a fucking liar or you've never heard of Sonic Youth.
I'm not mad or even disappointed with Spitting At The Glass (despite resorting to the f-bomb just then) because, as I said, this is a really good Sonic Youth rip off. I'm not sure that I wouldn't rather just go listen to Sonic Youth if given the option, but I don't mind a well done copy cat. To go with the Coke metaphor from the previous review, Venus Bogardus are...well, they're not like the Pepsi to Sonic Youth's Coke, but they're at least the RC Cola. They pull off the “we're artsy people who make a lot of references to New York City and obscure-ish references like the Fluxus art movement or Roxy Music” thing convincingly enough, and there's a feel/texture to the production that smacks of late night intensity; think of it as the steamy art-punk club to Interpol's chilly/detached, expensive-clothes-and-drinks/hipster's don't-call-it-a-bar bar. Also, when they diverge a bit from the Sonic Youth formula, like on the post-punky clangor of 'Spitting At The Glass' or the acoustic 'Mouth To Hand', they reveal themselves capable of much better than just clutching at the strands of New York Cities past. Here's hoping they lean a bit more on that and stop going to all tomorrow's parties.*
P.S. I don't know why they bothered with a radio edit of 'Flat Planes.' As near as I can tell, it's not even different from the album version, which is somehow less baffling than the fact that a band at this level of popularity and supposed independent spirit would make such a concession. Unless it's a joke, in which case it's an unfunny, pointless one. Kind of like the awful album cover, really.
P.P.S. That post-script sure went on long, didn't it?
*Yes, that was a Velvet Underground reference. See, I'm New York artsy, too!