It really is a double-edged sword to be visually compelling and a bit theatrical as a musician. If you’re not Bowie and it isn’t 1972, it’s a pretty fine balance to strike with any success. Sometimes the visuals distract and obscure, and that’s all there is to it.
It seems to me that New York City’s Theo and the Skyscrapers have suffered a bit from this - frequently reviewed on the basis of vocalist Theo Kogan’s striking appearance at the expense of the material, and things go curiously awry from this point: more often than not, it’s determined by reviewers for reasons that aren’t entirely clear that one component doesn’t live up to the promise of the other.
The sophomore effort from Theo and the Skyscrapers, So Many Ways to Die on Dark Daddy Records, came to my attention again when the band recently did a one-off date opening for Rancid at the Fillmore. It still strikes me how under reviewed and underrated the album continues to be, a bare year after its release. It’s like that old adage about farm fowl: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And hey, once you know it’s a duck, is there anything left to determine? Well, sure.
The "duck" in this case is better described as a "gloriously trashy technicolor electro-clash disco cabaret, with quirky art-punk and metallic overtones." The point still stands, however: while it’s sometimes convenient to be able to categorize things, to do so actually fails to convey how much fun this project really is, and how successful it is in blending visual components with musical ones. There’s no time like the present to rectify the oversight.
The twelve tracks of So Many Ways to Die are hemmed by a thoroughly modernized new-wave structure. The album is at once more focused, more textured and more ambitious than its self-titled predecessor. There are plenty of ghosts in this machine, a criticism also levied against the first album, but this is not a bad thing: Theo and the Skyscrapers cut fresh ground here by recasting everything old as something new again.
Theo and her bandmates - Sean Pierce (guitars and keyboards) and Chris Kling (drums) - have corralled the most appealing parts of ‘80’s electronic pop and fetishized and exploited them; streamlining them to reconstruct and create something genuinely original. Crunchy guitars and crisp techno beats perfectly punctuate the danceable synthpop stylings of the majority of the tracks.
It’s perhaps a bit tired to trot out the Blondie comparisons, but they’re perfectly apt. It would just be a mistake to stop there. Theo’s powerful voice delivers in a way that’s always interesting and meshes perfectly with the music.
Simple lyrics are a hallmark - things aren’t that complicated, and there’s no reason they should be. Throughout the songs, we see strong iconic character types writ large (see: the powerful manipulative personas of “Tease” and “Spider”, and the weak and overambitious social climber of “Big Britches’”) and set in unforgiving urban spaces that both fuel these same types and dwarf them. It’s like viewing snapshots from some kind of grim groovy cocktail party for the apocalypse.
Standout tracks include “Jealousy Died”; pulsing and relentless in its catchiness, Theo and the Skyscrapers are able to turn what could have easily been a weird trite goth-y theme of envying the recently deceased into something poppy, infectious and totally danceable.
“Ghost” has a stretched out attenuated quality that grows more appealing with repeated listening. Like a babydoll for the undead, Theo’s clipped staccato delivery makes the verses of the track is particularly effective, but it’s the blending of this with the drawling, sprawling quality of the chorus that makes the song lush, seductive and deliciously creepy.
“City of the Witch” is a fierce sounding track that has us back in edgy, urban territory with protagonists at the mercy of an unforgiving city that chews up and spits out its inhabitants as they try to go about their lives. This is paralleled unusually and quite effectively later in “Big Britches”. The pummeling transition between “Those Days” and “Spider” is particularly effective. Poppy, dark and relentless, these four tracks strike me as the strongest, and stabilize the middle of the album.
“Face the Music” is one of a couple of tracks that might not stand out that much musically. Nonetheless, it's interesting in a strange way: it seems to be a simple ode to the pitfalls of reinvention. With her reptilian references that invoke the Hawaiian-colored fellows on the album cover, Theo suggests that while it’s possible to shed one’s skin, the slithery thing sensual continues to exists underneath - cool and a little creepy, and still the same at the end of the day, and that perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing.
The album’s final track, “New York” is a gem, though it's a slow sensory scraping through the dark streets of a dear dirty cityscape, mired in stink and hard concrete surfaces, and it provides a wonderful dirge-like finale to the album.
Much of the limited coverage Theo and the Skyscrapers receives has been padded with references to past incarnations of Theo and her bandmates in The Lunachicks and The Toilet Böys. While not ideal, and arguably not intentional, this nonetheless reveal Theo and the Skyscrapers to be cats with many lives. They keep coming back with interesting eminently listenable projects that look as glossy, weird and attractive as they sound.
All told, the tracks increase their collective appeal with each listen. Recurring themes, and imagery all work together to produce a remarkably cohesive whole.
7.5 / 10
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