It is always interesting when DJs become bands. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but it always creates magical music: Chemical Brothers, Fat Boy Slim, LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk to name a few. So after spending the last few years remixing the likes of The Rakes, White Lies (band of the moment) and Bloc Party, Olly Dixon and Tim Lawton team up with Mark Ralph to make a 'proper' band. At a time when everyone is claiming that they loved the 80s, even the bits that were clearly crap at the time, pulsing synthesisers and throbbing bass are used without shame or regret. Throw in a handful of guest vocalists and the results, as you may expect, are a little inconsistent.
Nonsense In The Dark is centred around a brilliant title track, beautifully structured and framed around a free-flowing vocal performance from Orlando Weeks (somewhere between Gary Newman and Martin Fry) with buzzing electronics and fuzzy guitars. Within the bright shining synth-pop is a darker edge, namely the lyric "...the moonlight...made you do it...made you do it...do it". Then the song becomes a series of repeated ranting phrases, building to its wonderful full six and a half minute glory.
An entire album of this would be too much to ask, and probably get dull and trite, yet it is a beacon standing tall above everything else. Opener, and recent (re-released) single, This Rhythm comes a close second, bursting with the same looping keyboards and obvious 80s styling, both matched with the same vague-yet-energetic poses. The only down-point is the resorting to empty wailing vocals, obvious vocoder and over-production in the last two minutes, but after the sidestep, things come back with a resounding climax of pseudo-operatic wonder. Likewise Messages is trying to be pure pop perfection, shimmering with layers and bouncy piano. In contrast Don't Fall Softly is enhanced by the vocals of Brandon Curtis from Secret Machines. Another great example of flow and control.
Strangely the band chose Tupac Robot Club Rock as a second single, possibly in an attempt to emulate the Beastie Boys. At least they got a rapper to do the vocals, in this case Plastic Little. That said, lyrically it is complete gobbledegook and very different from anything else on the album. That is why it doesn't work.
Aside from the moments of brilliance, the rest of the album falls into two parts: the different and the same-but-not-as-good. Lyrically Elevator opens with "You brought me up when I was down" (that's that metaphor explained then) and never gets more interesting than that remaining all a bit too comfortable. As is the soft new-romantic tones of Light Skips Cross Heart. It all gets a bit muddy into the last two minutes threatening a half-baked direction change. Poison The Ivy should be brilliant but falls flat, thanks to lack of invention (the music chugs along and only finds a melody in the last two minutes), and a vocal (from Yars) that sounds more grand than the song. It could be a White Lies b-side. Which is no bad thing.
The most interesting music happens when no vocals are involved. You Better Stop is a great Orbital-style instrumental, as is the more space-aged Jarre/Vangelis inspired Cul-De-Sac. To complete the trilogy, Twenty Six Hundred is halfway between the first two, metamorphosing into a darker animal for the second half. All great 'interludes'. Closer Somewhere At Sea could be a great Moby-esque instrumental to conclude in a delicate and majestic way. But the need for Mauro from Sunny Day Sets Fire takes over and his falsetto stomps all over what is some of the best music on the album. A final stutter. To be fair, the last minute or so becomes an elegant highlight.
Inconsistency is not the problem with Nonsense In The Dark. With such an eclectic mix of styles and influences you need to expect some variation and lots of interesting experiments. So there is something for everyone. When it works the songs are brilliant, usually when the complexity is hidden within a simple idea, and this approach out-weighs the more 'challenging' parts of the album most of the time. And there is a lot of album to explore; at just under an hour, there is plenty to shout about and the good stuff should not be dragged down by the not-so-good just because it exists. The trio has clearly put together the body of work they feel embodies the Filthy Dukes spirit. Maybe over time, we will understand what that really means but for now, in this age of the digital playlist replacing the old mix tape, it is a case of pick 'n' mix (copyright Woolworths 1985. RIP).
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)