What can we do about a band like the Noisettes, a band with two full-length albums as different as salt and sugar? As lead singer Shingai Shoniwa said on What's the Time, Mr. Wolf's "Iwe," who are these people? And how do we get the band from that album back?
What's the Time was one of my favorite albums of the last five years--a raucous, almost lascivious collection of rough blues-rock. Their follow-up, Wild Young Hearts, is a total about-face. It's a pop album, slick and forgettable. It's dripping in strings, overdubs, and synthesizers. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
When the album is strong, it's not bad: "Don't Upset the Rhythm" is a decent dance groove, followed by the retro-sounding "Wild Young Hearts." The 50's imitation sound is also present on "Never Forget You," and the shift into doo-wop bopping doesn't really play to the Noisettes' strengths--it's all a bit me-too. "Beat of My Heart" sees band's original rock sound re-emerge momentarily, although it starts off a bit limp and then transitions into a bizarrely out-of-place, metal-esque guitar solo. Shoniwa lets her voice stretch a little on the softer songs, like "Atticus," but the material (a lengthy, rambling metaphor touching on both To Kill A Mockingbird and Pandora's Box) doesn't really justify what she can bring to the table. And the less that's said about 80's dance number "Saturday Night," the better.
Perhaps the biggest problem with these songs is not that they're bad, although they're certainly a bit weak, but that their energy is so low. Shoniwa has a powerful voice, and she's capable of shifting almost instantly between mocking, pleading, and menacing ("I dig your smile, too/And you dig my poker face"). Seen live, she's a force of nature on stage. But here, that manic presence has been pulled back into something more polished, more restrained, and the album suffers for it. Only on "Don't Upset the Rhythm" does she come close to cutting loose--small wonder that it was chosen as the radio single--and nowhere does she reach the heights of "Nothing to Dread" or "Scratch Your Name" from their first record.
Combined with the reduced presence of the other band members (among other things, their backing vocals have largely been replaced by overdubs of Shoniwa), it's tempting to speculate that this album is an attempt at grooming her for a role that's less confrontational, more mainstream--less Sister Rosetta, more Gwen Stefani. Personally, I think that'd be a real shame. The Noisettes of What's the Time were a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale world of garage rock (at least half of which is apparently helmed by Jack White, in one form or another). But who's to say? With a sample size this small, and a shift this great, the Noisettes could go anywhere from here. Here's hoping they'll take the chance.
Let's put it this way: Three Moods of the Noisettes is $6 if you can find it at the bookstore or order it from Amazon. For that price you're only getting four tracks--but they're pretty amazing songs, particularly if you've got a blues/rock itch that needs to be scratched. They bring the Rock. Considering that a lot of CDs nowadays, even by good musicians, often contain only three or four really great songs anyway, this is a pretty good deal.
Shingai Shoniwa, lead singer and bass, has a voice that's practically worth the price of admission on its own. It veers from throaty to sweet, Billie Holiday to Joan Jett, sometimes in a single passage. The drums and guitar are strong enough to support Shoniwa, but stay stripped down for speed. Percussion is almost a military shuffle, while the guitarist breaks up the distortion with some creative tremelo and ghost notes.
I'm not sure what the three moods of the title are supposed to be. The opening track, "Don't Give Up," staggers between jazz and punk, before collapsing into "Monte Christo," where Shoniwa and guitarist Dan Smith trade Alice in Wonderland lines about honeybees and the Count. "Signs" is probably the poppiest of the four, based around a riff that wouldn't be out of place on a Killers album. The album closes with "Burn," a glorious six-minute blues vamp.
Three Moods of the Noisettes clearly isn't for everyone--it's unapologetically retro in its inspirations and minimalist in its arrangements. If the singles I've heard are any indication, since this EP the band has moved toward more traditional (and less interesting) production values, which is a shame. As Three Moods shows, there's a lot to be said for a rough but unrestrained mix.