Rating:Perhaps it’s fitting that one of the year’s best albums, one that’s already made a splash in its native Britain, should thus far have flown under the radar here in the States. After all, one of the hallmarks of minimalism is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Edinburgh’s art school nerds Django Django don’t have the name recognition of Beach House, the suave soulfulness of Frank Ocean, the swagger of Twin Shadow or the hip sleepiness of Grizzly Bear, acts that will surely get more love on year-end best-of lists and more plays in the ear buds of the thick-rimmed glasses wearing set. But with his kick drum and tom-toms (and a liberal dose of tambourine) drummer and producer David Maclean and a trio of his compatriots have put together a debut that sneaks up on you and gets into your bloodstream before you even know you’ve been bit.
In an era when indie bands routinely suck the marrow from the ‘80s, discarding the decade’s less appealing excesses in a neon heap, Django Django digs deeper and calls upon vintage elements such as a roiling surf guitar, psychedelic vocal harmonies and outer space themes, blowing the dust off them and cobbling together a host of influences that congeal into a seamless album that feels anything but collagist. Trying to pin them down to a specific genre would be fruitless, as at any given moment you could hear something akin to the Beach Boys, Hot Chip, Dick Dale or the Beta Band (of which Maclean’s older brother John was a member) and in the next moment something entirely different. After a 2009 release of double A-side single “Storm/Love’s Dart,” Django Django spent two years recording this superlative debut LP, and their intensive effort is evident throughout as they’ve managed to strike the perfect balance of sparse and lush, of the ineffable and the lyrical, of artsy and accessible.
Opening with an introductory track of otherworldly effects juxtaposed by chirps from terrestrial creatures of the night, Django Django touches upon the hypnotic vocal harmonies that go on to permeate the entire album and then segues fluidly into a head-bobbing song about a comet. “Hail Bop” utilizes jangly guitar strumming and clapping percussion and the harmonized, oddly affectless vocals include lyrics that throw around terms like “head in the clouds” and “funny look in your eye” which conjure images both of the desire for transcendence and misguided blind faith that can befall those who are manipulated by charlatans (much like the Heaven’s Gate cult in response to the actual Hale-Bopp comet). But the album really gets off the ground with lead single “Default,” as a bottom-strings heavy opening guitar riff is joined by glitchy vocal loops that stutter and shine and add a retro-futuristic flair. The upbeat tune is underlain with bitingly sardonic lyrics, “You’ve missed the starting gun/ For everything you’ve ever done/ You took part in the race/ But disappeared without a trace” and later, “Take one for the team/ You’re a cog in the machine/ It’s like a default.” Sung as though from a jilted yet emotionally detached former lover, “Default” assumes disaster is an inevitability even while conveying that message through sanguine psychedelia.
The middle portion of the album is a whirlwind but never disorients as we shift from one style and atmosphere to another. Despite the disparities of sound, we find everything in its right place. “Firewater” details a hangover with a shuffling beat that blooms into a wordless vocal soar from lead singer and guitarist Vincent Neff by the song’s coda. “Waveforms” sees more warbling synthesized effects than most other tracks, and the harmonized vocals are drawn out in a very Beta-esque fashion. “Zumm Zumm” echoes and repeats like a star cruiser engine that won’t turn over. Opening with the rattle of a vibraslap and subsequent electro-lashes, its soft and steady blend of guitar and bass prop up the almost Simon & Garfunkel-esque vocals.
Near the album’s tail end, boundaries are further pushed. “Skies of Cairo” captures the feel of weathering a sandstorm while riding a camel through the Sahara. “WOR” injects a siren and the kind of Dick Dale guitar rumbles that surely accompany Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-murder wet dreams (though the title of the freewheeling director’s upcoming film Django Unchained is apparently just coincidence). And the surf guitar gets more nuanced in the upbeat “Life’s a Beach,” which somehow includes the lyric, “Going loco Acapulco” without coming off as corny, and results in an infectious summer anthem that’s the equivalent of doing a longboard barrel ride under the Maui sun.
Django Django hasn’t been without limited acclaim. The Guardian sang its praises with a five-star rating upon the album’s UK release last January, and it’s been nominated for Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize. But this album has yet to get its rightful due. The double-named band’s self-titled debut (that’s four “Djangos” for those keeping score at home), improves upon repeated listens to the point of revealing itself as nearly flawless by the time the play count exceeds all reason (as my iTunes reports to me it has). The songs stand alone well enough to each deserve a spot on a mixtape, while the album as a whole is cohesive yet varied and seems to cover more ground than there could possibly be on this planet. Hail to the bop.