He Said Replacements / She Said Duran Duran
From classics like Joy Division and Boston to contemporaries like Bloc Party and Florence and the Machine, so frequently do groups whose debut records net universal critical acclaim falter on their second release that it’s necessitated the co-option of the “sophomore slump” idiom, originally fashioned for sports. Unfortunately, this is the case with the newest Ex Cops release, Daggers, an album pulled in so many directions by a crop of influences so diverse that it renders giving it a well thought review somewhat difficult.
Opener “Black Soap” is a classic bait and switch; it starts out with the slightly crunchy, lo-fi guitar tones and simple, clattery percussion of other post-White Stripes garage revival groups (as suggested by the sleek album art and Ex Cops’ two-person lineup), but morphs into an entirely different creature in a sudden smoke bomb of synthesizers, vocal harmonies and phaser effects when the duo hit the chorus. This is the first example of Ex Cops not being sure quite sure what sort of group they want to be over the course of Daggers, but it certainly isn’t the last.
There are rhythmic stabs of the My Bloody Valentine-type dream pop that dominated the duo’s 2013 debut True Hallucinations, but they’re very compartmentalized in comparison to newfound pop music influences. The glittery electric keyboard arpeggio and over the top synth drum fills that are center stage on the anthemic “Teenagers” sound like echoes of Madonna in the golden age of the heavy radio rotation of “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” while the song “Pretty Shitty” echoes a Joan Jett pop sound.
By the time we get through the sizzling slow jam “Burnt Out Love,” Amalie Bruun has tried out a number of pop music tropes along the lines of both Karen O and Lana Del Rey, surprisingly. The sudden style switch-outs feel a bit disjointed for six tracks into a full-length record, almost like Bruun can’t decide which direction to take her performance.
However, the beginning of “Tragically Alright” marks a jarring thematic change in which guitarist/composer Brian Harding mans the helm of Daggers, taking command of lead vocal duties and laying down guitar-driven folk stomp that sounds a bit like a Neil Young record played at the incorrect speed when topped with his indie-esque voice. This radical new aesthetic lasts for the remainder of the record.
The instrumentation and sonic textures that emerge from that point onward, from the twangy, pedal steel slides to the mournfully sustained grand piano chords, sound extremely different from Daggers’ first half. The heavy lyrics of “Rooms” (“Try, try to stay alive / Morphine is in your eyes”) resound intensely, as if the rustic tones are performed by a completely different band than the sounds heard earlier on the track “Teenagers.” All the more rattling is the album’s burst-fire coda, “Weird With You,” which slips back into the fuzzed out, garage rock of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without warning, and feels like Daggers’ most delightfully sincere songwriting.
The guy/girl duo is a hot ticket right now, but attempting to bridge the absence of dead duos like Crystal Castles doesn’t excuse a lack of cohesive songwriting. Daggers is stylistically scattered, but Ex Cops aren’t at fault. Who can really blame the duo for wishing not to single out a particular sub genre on their second release? Ex Cops lack a particular single sound, but in the long run, this may not necessarily be a bad thing.