The New York group tightens its sound with mixed results.
Marcus J. Moore 2012-02-13
In 2009, The Phenomenal Handclap Band’s self-titled debut album dripped with agitated ambition. Though chastised by some critics, it was a set which left the listener never knowing what to expect from the multidimensional New York band, as the recording reached for alt-rock, disco, and electro-pop – sometimes all in the same song. While spacey tracks like You’ll Disappear and 15 to 20 thumped with soul-stomping grit, songs like The Journey to Serra Da Estrela and The Circle Is Broken seemed to writhe with no foreseeable end.
Despite the band’s schizophrenic approach, the outcome was certainly dynamic, even if the voyage was slightly esoteric. But that confusion works for PHB, whose part-hippie, part-futuristic vibe has garnered a respectable cult following at home and beyond. Half the time, there’s no telling who is singing lead or how many members are still on board; it’s Earth, Wind & Fire in modern day clothes.
On sophomore album Form & Control, the group confines its sound to digestible cosmic soul grooves and bouncy new wave, resulting in a light-hearted set more streamlined than its predecessor, yet captivating enough to hold your attention. But while the band should be respected for its newfound instrumental aesthetic, the album is stalled somewhat by lacklustre songwriting. Sure, PHB is known for multifaceted production, but the insufficient lyrics can’t be ignored here.
For instance, the marching All Clichés mocks itself as a twangy take on positive affirmations. And while songs like Following and The Right One jumpstart the album’s nostalgic course, the breezy 1970s themes wane somewhat toward the recording’s second half. Afterglow, with its layered percussion and prominent guitar work, probably would’ve worked without vocals, and The Attempt brings about an abrupt ending to proceedings.
Ultimately, Form & Control serves it purpose as a ready-made playlist for your next party, but perhaps the band’s oversimplifying of its sound has stripped away some of its mystique in the process. PHB’s debut was restless and pushy, characteristics that made it a worthwhile listen; and, at certain points, they let the music breathe. Conversely, the new album feels thin and restricted, and the group mirrors too many of its musical influences. There’s artistic agitation just itching to get out, but this end product is a bit too formulaic and controlled.