Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Ting Tings - Sounds From Nowheresville (Album Review 2012)

It’s been a hard four years for The Ting Tings. Chasing the success of a number one UK single, and a promising stylish pop album, around the world has left Katie White and Jules De Martino jaded and jilted. The music press and ‘fans’ can easily forget if you don’t keep up the momentum. Like many before them, they scrapped most of the initial follow-up to We Started Nothing after they avoided being sucked into the Berlin Euro-pop scene and single Hands was dropped after it was played on BBC Radio 1. Proof that you really cannot control your own destiny. So the second album, entitled Sounds From Nowheresville, spitefully titled and featuring the duo on the cover as skeletons, seems like a deliberate attempt to disconnect from the mainstream, just as the band need to.

The big problem with Sounds From Nowheresville is that it’s so ironic that even the band don’t realise. At times, it seems to parody the manufactured X-Factor culture, tries to prove that it’s easy to throw out a ‘sad disco’ R&B tune, and The Ting Tings take the piss out of themselves. All this adds up to a confused message – which is probably what they are striving for: the air of mystery returning, the elusive arms-length approach. Sounds From Nowheresville is like hitting the reset button. In a very good way.

Even if The Ting Tings are reluctant to keep the past, single Hang It Up is trademark punchy art-pop, all sharp edges and industrial percussion wrapped around White’s equally spiky vocals.  The centre of the song is a dual tirade against the establishment starting with White: “Could have been a lawyer; take what you can. Never been happy since time began…” and leading to a rare (and quite brilliant) De Martino vocal rant ending: “Time for you to rearrange”. It is an album highlight. This approach continues with the wonderful Guggenheim, blending 60s girl-group ‘talky bit’ with a powerful attention-grabbing chorus. The whole arrangement is bizarre but utterly unique and compelling – as White unveils each chapter of an unhappy relationship while struggling with the onset of fame and fortune.

Continuing the positive, Sounds From Nowheresville opens with the startling Silence – with its huge Joy Division keyboards and White’s soaring vocals. It would work much better as an eight-minute album closer so it always feels like a missed opportunity. One By One is a rejected Euro-pop songs revisited and consequently another high point. It manages to sound retro and modern at the same time even though it quickly becomes We Walk’s cooler cousin. And the big surprise is the tongue-in-cheek Rihanna-esque (in spite of early rumours, she doesn’t feature on the album) Day To Day that ends up a charming and engaging listen. Likewise, yet completely different, Give It Back is a solid, driving rock-pop tune with big guitars and plenty of attitude, with De Martino and White sharing the vocals and a neat catchy chorus – even though it spirals into a noisy messy finale.

Elsewhere things are mixed. Soul Killing is annoying kitch completely ruined by a horrible vocal performance from White and persistent squeaky chair (yes, really). Hit Me Down Sonny suffers from the amateurish delivery and ‘Chelsea mansion doorbell’ samples. There are only a few times ‘lair’ and ‘fire’ (and later ‘expire’) can achieve acceptable scansion. The folky yet explosive Help doesn’t quite work and is an odd fragment – White going from soft to hard as the music follows her.

Sounds From Nowheresville ends with another surprise: the perfectly judged In Your Life. Startling strings and delicate guitar work and vocals make for a serious downbeat finale. This is more evidence that White and De Martino are far from one-dimensional. And again the song could do with a Portishead style instrumental three-minute extension.

If The Ting Tings spent half as much time writing good songs, as they do trying to be cool and stylish, they would be huge. This is a frustrating trait that is shared with other duo bands like The Kills. A few more ideas and a little more polish without compromising artistic integrity goes a long way. Another issue is that Sounds From Nowheresville is offensively short (just under 35 minutes). They reportedly cut the single Hands. It’s not the best song but why not rework the arrangement and add it? Why throw average stuff away? While trying to not make each song a Frankenstein’s monster, the entire album sounds like a playlist – an odd confliction of ideals. That said, The Ting Tings still pull it off and Sounds From Nowheresville is a decent return for a band still failing to reach their potential.
-- CS

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