It seems long ago that touches of house or disco in indie-pop could be a thing of great novelty, or a possible cause for alarm. But after a decade of smudged genre lines, of the synthesizer continuously gaining on the guitar, the briefly dominant sound of New York City’s DFA Records has returned to the margins. Aside from a couple precocious singles by teenaged Shamir, the best current version is being made by the same people who were making it then. DFA OGs The Juan MacLean proved the formula can still work with their 2014 In a Dream.
New Build, a Hot Chip side group formed by all-world guitar player Al Doyle and electronic percussionist Felix Martin, keep doing it too. But while they drew fine reviews for 2012’s Yesterday Was Lived and Lost, its follow-up, Pour It On, yields diminished results. Historically, this stuff has peaked behind singers with well-established personae—James Murphy’s over-it scene boss, Nancy Whang’s coolly detached diva, or the suave nerd stylings of Hot Chip chum Alexis Taylor. There’s a middle stretch of Pour It On, from “Your Arrival” to “Luminous Freedom,” where singing is made completely irrelevant by the conviction of the grooves, the body-rippling heavy butter of expensive synth tones. Doyle’s vocals, thin and indistinct, are a problem throughout.
Their home-country rag, NME, brutally dismissed the album as “whingey and middle-aged.” Coming from a publication who slotted Sun Kil Moon’s Benji among their best records of 2014, that’s a bit rich. But the description feels unfair and, at the same time, uncomfortably on point. Take the leaden “Weightless,” which details the stresses of raising kids in the midst of a separation. That’s a topic that’s tough to boogie to. Dance-pop groups age with varying degrees of grace. Caribou’s much better Our Love, for example, went deep but oblique. “Adult dance music” has never really been a thing, though, unless you’re talking about Motown standards played at a niece’s wedding.
There’s at least one young band making the ol’ dance-punk hybrid seem somewhat lively, and they happen to be opening for New Build at Rough Trade early this month. As heard on their new EP, I’m So Inspired, Brooklyn’s Future Punx have the convergence of sequenced beats, disco guitar licks, and post-punk bass seeming, if not new, then newly appealing. In press releases the band calls their particular mix “post-wave,” a knowingly empty genre tag of prefix and suffix alone. Their synths sound comparatively cheap, but the soothsaying zeal of their delivery goes a long way. There are hints of the hip 70s throughout—Orange Juice, Talking Heads, Suicide, Devo. The band’s credibility as futurists leans on the tendency of influences unheard in a while to come back around. Still, in a scene plagued by shitty hardcore and sketchy alt-R&B, the band’s in-pocket tightness is refreshing.
The revival isn’t setting the city ablaze just yet, though. Future Punx’s headlining set was maybe the worst attended of Death by Audio’s farewell week. A significant chunk of the crowd peeled out of the sainted dive after Washington, D.C. band Priests’ high-energy punk-of-the-present wound down. But those who stayed were moved to sway. New Build and Future Punx play Rough Trade NYC on December 4 with Orange Cassettes; tickets are $17 advance, $20 day of.