We should probably have retired the word “supergroup” well before the Zwan/Audioslave era made a mockery of it. It’s now devolved to the point that any band featuring musicians we’ve already heard of counts as one, whether the result is a truly good band (Wild Flag spring to mind), a gross disgrace (Them Crooked Vultures still make us kind of mad), or a frustrating mess jammed up with unkempt ideas and no real guiding vision (we were really excited about Swan Lake once upon a time, sigh). Looking at the “supergroup” Wikipedia entry, which is actually a pretty fun diversion if you are already mentally weekending at work right now, we learn of such marvelously non-essential blips as 1995’s Neurotic Outsiders featuring Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses (and also The Fartz with a z). More recently, did you know that Michael Cera was the touring bassist for the Man Man/Unicorns/Modest Mouse/Arrested Development “supergroup” Mister Heavenly? Maybe we should call them “combo-groups,” or “fusion-groups,” or some other, less completely terrible term that doesn’t already contain a superlative? How about just “new rock band”?
Divine Fits are a new rock band that happen to feature some people you’ve heard of. Primarily Britt Daniel from Spoon and Dan Boeckner from Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs (and also New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown, who get a slightly smaller font, through no fault of his own). Their debut record, A Thing Called Divine Fits, is out in a couple of weeks on Merge Records, and is streaming for now in full at NPR. It’s so good, you guys!
It’s the rare collaboration of this sort that makes as much sense in practice as it does on paper. Both Daniel and Boeckner are sharp minimalists in a rock underground that’s alternately moved towards being over-orchestrated or chronically fuzzy. Both lead singers have aloof-dude rock star personas that are sort of at odds with their super expressive raspy voices. Spoon has remained pretty stridently guitar-based over the years, while Boeckner has been synth-punk for more than a minute, but you can already imagine these guys in a combined creative space pretty easily. (Just use guitars and synths, fellas!) But it’s a pleasure to say that the record they churned out goes way beyond passably cohering. A Thing Called Divine Fits might be the best rock record I’ve heard all year.
In the record’s first half, Boeckner is vocally dominant. It initially seems like it might be a famous pal giving a hand to a colleague left suddenly bandless (and since he broke up the musical and life partnership with his wife, also suddenly wife-less). On the terrific opening track, “My Love Is Real,” Boeckner provides a seemingly stark window into the collapse of Handsome Furs. Over small-scale synth tones that would have well-suited a new Furs record, he barks, “My love is real…until it stops.” Which: whoa, harsh, sad. The Boeckner-fronted tracks are very rewarding to those of us who’ve followed him post-Wolf Parade, in that even in synth-driven songs he’s given the tightest, most formidable rhythm section he’s had, at least since Wolf Parade and maybe forever. Brown doesn’t go full-blown Bonham or anything, but his spare, forceful drumming is a huge jump up from the broken drum machines Dan has been relying on for years.
As befits his even cooler remove, Daniel really comes on in the record’s second half. If there’s a better version of half-speed bar-rock than their cover of The Boys Next Door’s “Shivers” I don’t want to know about it. (Wait, that’s a super dumb saying. Of course I do!) This material isn’t quite as immaculately studio-perfectionist as the best Spoon records, but that’s true of almost anything. And the willful wandering quality here highlights the emotional content of his voice in a way that Spoon can sometimes refuse to. Check a live performance, earlier this month.
I mean, that’s a real deal rock band! I can see them, I can feel it. A damn good one. If, in the grand march of time, Divine Fits turn out to be just a one-off side-project, or heaven forbid, just another forgotten “supergroup” listed on Wikipedia, it’ll be a crying shame.