Published June 17, 2011
The album lead-in is a raging ‘90s keyboard loop with promises of a record best experienced while wearing overalls and watching some ebony mercenary on ‘Top of the Pops’ grind in front of two nerds from Coventry. That turns out to be a false promise, although there is some shared ground between FM Belfast and the raver pop. For one thing, ‘Don’t Want To Sleep’ is very much the opposite of the latest GusGus album, which focuses on melodramatic electronic anthems and craftsmanship—FMB have always been going for something sloppier and goofier than that. They don’t worry too much about musicianship (like the punks) or authenticity (very unlike the punks) or originality (like every bastard musician dating back to the primordial soup). It has some of that carefree day-glo of the hoover synth days.
FM Belfast are a live band and their live shows bring the house down like clockwork despite having by all appearances been dared on stage 10 minutes earlier as a joke.
This makes it a little tricky to review FM Belfast albums, as it’s not the kind of band you should form an opinion on without having seen live. They are a live band to the core (take note bands trying to make a living with plummeting album sales), a travelling circus of sloppiness that spills into every corner of the room, the idea of “stage presence” lost by the time you notice half the audience is on stage and half the band has gone stage-diving in their underwear.
It’s the kind of anarchy you normally associate with psych-rock or gypsy punk (think Monotonix, Lightning Bolt or Gogol Bordello) but dressed in enough bowties and careless grins to please a thousand in-laws.
The dogged refusal to be taken too seriously—understandable when you consider how easily this kind of naive chaos can be corrupted (look at what happened to Cansei de Ser Sexy)—combined with the strong live focus makes ‘Don’t Want to Sleep’ a tricky album to review.
As mentioned, the album opens with the misleading raver keyboard on ‘Stripes’. It’s fun song but a little samey and without a clear chorus my guilty feet fail to find that rhythm. Could be much worse though.
The second song is called ‘American’ and sounds like a comment on the relationship between Icelandic and American culture. Unconnected to anything, this reviewer was living in a predominantly Jamaican neighbourhood of New York City while reviewing the album and couldn’t help but think what a neighbour might think hearing FM Belfast wafting out the window. I can’t say I have high hopes for Americans learning to appreciate FM Belfast on a large scale (let alone Caribbean-Americans). Maybe this is why I find my appreciation for FM Belfast wavering occasionally. One moment I’m sucked in and their music fills me with smiles and sunshine, the next it all seems very slight, jokey in that insular Scandinavian indie way. FM Belfast may want to learn American but they can’t help but insist on an accent that sometimes can come off as a little off-putting. ‘American’ feels more unfinished than charmingly raw. But you’re still interested in seeing where this album goes.
In the song titled ‘Mondays’, things pick up a little but it still sounds more toned down record than their previous effort—maybe this reviewer needs to adjust his perception?
On ‘Believe’ it’s starting to sound almost wistful. Wistful FM Belfast album? Really?
With ‘We Fall’ it’s bordering on the morose, I don’t get where they’re going with this—does the album come with IKEA directions for assembly? I guess they could be taking the same road as Gorillaz did on ‘Plastic Beach’, half-poppy ballads about the dangers of modern living.
‘Noise’ is definitely growing on me. It’s cinematic, might work as the soundtrack to an anime show about a young boy learning about the true nature of friendship by piloting a mech into battle. Definitely ‘Plastic Beach’. Quite a beautiful song, actually—reminds me a little of Moby’s ‘Porcelain’ (ask your parents).
‘Vertigo’ is a total charmer—a lovely horn-section that made me think of Belle & Sebastian for no logical reason. Made me feel so warm inside that I was almost able to overlook the silliness of the “Far away! Far away!” falsetto.
‘Don’t Want To Sleep’ reminds me of the shift in Yeah Yeah Yeahs last two albums. Definitely ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Sleep Either’ would have worked great on the ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ soundtrack—both in terms of melody and lyrics (such as they are). It’s by far the catchiest song on the album. Look forward to being sold fruit-themed electronics or affordable compact cars to this tune before the year is over.
‘Happy Winter’ is a grower not a show-er. Drama, monotonous beat, echoing vocals. The only one still getting plays on my stereo.
All the elements are there though, the two syllable song titles, shout-along lyrics, dirt-simple melodies. Makes one wonder how long they’ll get away with it. I guess as long as they can convince us that they’re having as much fun as we are, they should be fine for a while. Sure there are wistful lyrics about bringing people pain, falling down, heartbreak, deja vu, getting lost and driving off into the distance. But at least you’re with your friends while you’re driving to your far-away place—plus you’re learning a foreign language which sounds like sound advice when moving to far-away places.
It’s an album that took some figuring out, but with his as so much art it’s not about what you do as much as what you don’t do, and FM Belfast managed to avoid a lot of easy mistakes. The sound, the lyrics, their appearance, the live shows… it all fits seamlessly together without feeling pre-packaged. They are playing with the feel and texture of the music but the basics have stayed the same. Not everything works and they don’t always pull off the sombre kidult reflecting on the future, but there’s enough charm and interesting ideas to carry on these beautiful shambles. ‘Don’t Want To Sleep’ has a hint of the second album blues, but FM Belfast have managed to avoid the jejune for another season and we’re still in love.
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