Tonight: five piece soul band!

Something that came up during my interview with Vivian Girls last night – yes, I will say more about it; no, I’m not just trying to hype it up mercilessly – was a discussion about what breeds a certain explosion in music creation. I contrasted the societal foibles that seem to inform British songwriters, with the predominantly positive artistic environment that catalyses American music-making. Primarily, I was comparing the canon of social commentators in British music (The Kinks, Blur, The Jam &c.), with the explosion of alternative and experimental music streaming out of Brooklyn (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls themselves).

This morning, while listening to Prinzhorn Dance School’s eponymous debut (released in 2007), it became clear to me that this tradition of commenting on the oddities of British society is still very much alive today. I like to think of Prinzhorn Dance School as being a recent band that time has already forgotten, for no good reason. The truth is, I regard them very highly, both musically and lyrically. There are clear links between their sparse, minimalist instrumentation and that of Shellac, and they also share that band’s taste in dark, violent humour. Their debut album was perhaps a tad long, but it boasted remarkably intricate song structures, and some of the best post-Albini production, courtesy of James Murphy, giving the whole work a wonderfully resonant, spacious sound. In Pitchfork’s review of the album, the critic wrote,

Only 70% or so of Prinzhorn Dance School’s debut album is made up of music. The rest is…well, it’s hard to say. What do you call the space in a song that lingers between the guitar parts, vocals, and beats?

And I really can’t put it much better myself. This lingering space fills the album with a sense of dread and anxiety, without resorting to melodramatic musical gimmicks. In the absence of trickery, the natural harmonics of guitar strings are allowed to float around unhindered. The almost militarily precise drums emit a kind of padded reverb. The bass sinks faster than the Titanic. The whole affair is rather industrial, like being inside a tightly packed machine that never slackens – a sensation depicted more visually in the video to “Crackerjack Docker”, above.

Combined with the sardonic and painfully unsettling lyrics, it makes for an uneasy listen. It’s not an example of my famous ‘scary music’, but it’s certainly pretty dark. In the song “Do You Know Your Butcher”, for example, the band reflect upon the unintentional scene of murder one might imagine -

If you go in for the counter,
There’s blood on the hands,
Fur on the floor
Meat.

An awful lot of it is about implied violence and enigma in the most innocuous of settings. It’s a bit like being in a Coen Brothers film. In “Don’t Talk To Strangers”, the pair deliver what seems like a public information film gone horribly wrong -

Don’t talk to strangers,
Just get into the car.
Don’t talk to strangers,
Or they’ll find out who you are.
Don’t talk to strangers,
I’ve got pills in a jar.

Just like their precursors, Prinzhorn Dance School are writing about the deep-rooted sense of dread in suburbia; the terror of doing nothing; the feeling of irrelevancy as we sit in cars, in traffic, our minds elsewhere. All this makes them one of more curious signings to James Murphy’s DFA label: I really hope the mixed reaction to their debut was a product of critical uncertainty about their pretensions, as opposed to a genuine dislike of their strange sense of humour. I could say, “but at least Pitchfork liked it,” but that would be missing the point. Pitchfork liked it because they can see beyond what could pass for being extremely pretentious. Pretentious is not what Prinzhorn Dance School are about. Yes, the music is certainly uncompromising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed – albeit with a wry smile on one’s face.

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