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Death From Above 1979
The Physical World Dean Brown , October 1st, 2014 19:56

Since its release in 2004, fans of Death From Above 1979 have been hoping the duo would get back in the studio to follow-up their acclaimed debut, You're A Woman, I'm A Machine.  That album bristled with blinding energy, as the fuzzed-out, bucking basslines of John Bonham lookalike Jesse F. Keeler were pitted against drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger's simple yet solid rhythms, which flitted between disco beats, driving punk rock rhythms and funky grooves. On top of this distorted foundation came Grainger's croon and howl, aching with sexual tension and dirty desires, and with raucous tracks like 'Romantic Rights', 'Black History Month' and 'Little Girl', DFA 1979 connected with a broad base of music lovers, from indie rock fans to open-minded metalheads.

However, the Toronto band didn't fully capitalise on the hype garnered as a result of their rough and ready debut; the tension inherent in their chemistry caused Keeler and Grainger to go their separate ways in 2006, with DFA 1979 seemingly resigned to the status of a cult act. The split between the pair was acrimonious at best, and both musicians tried to distance themselves in the intervening years: Grainger embarked upon a rather unremarkable singer/songwriter endeavour while Keeler amped up the electronic influences that flavoured his underutilised keyboard work with DFA 1979, trading under the moniker MSTRKRFT alongside You're A Woman, I'm A Machine producer Al-P.

The vast musical landscape has changed since 2006. The rise of social media has helped widen musical boundaries, and although most of DFA 1979's past contemporaries – from Queens Of The Stone Age to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – are still active and just as relevant as they were in 2004, presently it takes a lot to get noticed in what is an oversaturated digital market. Artistic relevance in 2014 is therefore about much more than just ramping up the web-hits by a streaming a new song on a high traffic website or partaking in a bunch of interchangeable Q and A articles – especially so in the case of reformed artists. For returning bands like DFA 1979, there needs to be extra effort taken to make sure they have something musically significant to say if they're going to risk putting their reputation on the chopping block. That's why it's disappointing to find that The Physical World, the second album from DFA 1979 – who reunited in 2010, played a bunch of reunion shows in 2011 and hit the studio in 2012 – sounds as if ten weeks have yet to pass since their debut, never mind ten years.

While plenty of nostalgic jukes and jives were expected of The Physical World, so too were displays of forward movement. Yet there's nothing here that really reflects substantive growth besides the band's focus on more radio-friendly vocal hooks – and it's debatable whether that even equates development but it is a notable difference from their first album nonetheless. Instead, DFA 1979 seem happy to hammer home the same signature songwriting themes time and time again but with half the power of their debut, so the results are average at best rather than feverishly exciting.

Where debut opener 'Turn It Out' arrived squalling, all twitchy paranoia and punk abandon, 'Cheap Talk' has its eye dead-set on radio-play and Grainger's chorus when backed by the brawny basslines of Keeler forms a rather tepid beginning to The Physical World. Because their reckless energy has been diluted in favour of emphasised vocals, the limitations that can plague two-person bands are prominent in pockets throughout The Physical World – particularly the songs that source identical riffs to their debut. 'Gemini' covers awfully familiar ground and proves more propulsive than some of the other tracks here but the impact is lost when Grainger's failings as a singer become glaring magnified; his melodies are really weak and forgettable, and as a result, he takes the bite out of the song. 'Trainwreck 1979' and 'Government Trash' also try to kick-start the forward boom of old but the former is full of limp, tired riffs and the latter sounds sloppy rather than incendiary; the duo awkwardly tumble over each other as the tempo dial is increased to 'punk rock'.

The bluesy 'Virgins' slows things down to the icky thump of The White Stripes, and this song works quite well by slightly distancing itself from what was once an interesting template. The same can be said for 'White Is Red'; the duo add some dynamics to the bass and keyboards interplay and they pull off the 'effortlessly cool' sound they're aiming for – if you ignore the wistful lyrics that look back longingly on teenage times past and sound awkwardly dated for a pair of guys in their 30s. However, the best of the songs on The Physical World happen to be the most instinctive sounding. Where some songs appear forced and lacking in ideas, 'Nothing Left', 'The Physical World' and 'Right On, Frankenstein!' succeed because of strong, animated vocal hooks and timely lashings of urgency, which bring back the excitement DFA 1979 once held at their fingertips. Grainger is spirited in his delivery of these songs and Keeler works up and down his bass with elastic ease; with Grainger thumping through some punchy rhythms there's tangible volatility here.

Unfortunately though, this is not enough to raise The Physical World to a height worthy of your repeated time and attention. Taken on their individual merits there's nothing particularly 'wrong' with the 11 songs that form DFA 1979's long-awaited second album, but altogether there's few standout moments and the tight, self-imposed confines of DFA 1979's sound shackles them to the floor. In fact, Grainger unintentionally describes The Physical World perfectly on 'Right On, Frankenstein!': "it's the same old song, just a different tune." Because DFA 1979 lack the bravery – or maybe it's the ability – to expand their sound and evolve and strengthen their songwriting, The Physical World will sadly disappear from this digital world once the promo cycle passes by.

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