The best thing to happen to the tracksuit since Juicy Couture finally became unpopular was the arrival of Datarock. The Norwegian act’s 2005 debut was the party album you didn’t know you needed and sure as hell didn’t think anyone else would love. Sure, it had hooks, but it was also a nerd’s wet dream. A track entitled “Computer Camp Love”, Uranus jokes, pop culture references galore, and a bevy of studio gadgets. You could spend hours picking apart the geektastic layers of the LP, or you could just spend that time pogo-dancing.
Four years later, the album retains its levity without suffering from gimmick fatigue. But would the band be able to maintain its balance of humor and nerd-pop without grating on your nerves? Their sophomore LP, Red, proves that yes, they can do it, and with surprising ease.
“The Blog” opens Red with glorious 80’s synths and a Prince nod as a computerized voice announces to canned audience cheers, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to give you Datarock.” Sound bites about technology and Web 2.0 pepper a would-be rock anthem championing today’s digital age. It’s a rousing opening to a technologically-inclined album and an accurate calling card for the band. It smoothly slides into the album’s lead single, “Give It Up”. As one of the LP’s catchiest numbers, it’s easy on the ears with an irresistible guitar riff and Galaga beeps. It also highlights the fact that the album’s lacking as many hooks as the debut. That’s a minor quibble, seeing as Red delivers 13 strong tracks, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss something as unexpectedly clever as “I Used To Dance With My Daddy”.
That said, “True Stories” is one of Datarock’s strongest efforts and not as outwardly quirky as the debut’s highlights. The lyrics of “True Stories” consist entirely of Talking Heads song titles. What’s most impressive is that unless you’re a Heads groupie, you could easily miss out on that factoid and still appreciate the song’s structure. The blunt allusion to Talking Heads is also a welcome tip of the hat to a band Datarock obviously reveres and has aurally referenced on nearly every song they’ve released.
Although Red is a slightly less silly affair than Datarock Datarock, it contains its share of lovable pop culture stupidity. Exhibit A: “Molly”, a paean to the venerable Molly Ringwald. “The Pretender” is a delightful cross between Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum”. In his deadpan voice, Fredrik Saroea announces, “I’m a North Korean, I’m a South American / I am a European, I am a Samaritan…I’m a boy and I’m a girl, I am the pretender!” Between the onslaught of synths and guitar riffs, you get caught up in the anthemic feeling of simply identifying yourself.
With the impressive closer “New Days Dawn”, the band dabbles in soul pop that would’ve fit nicely on the radio 30 years ago–Bread, anyone? In his limited range, Saroea croons, “But see how the waves are rushing in / And see how the waves are washing off / Leaving the shore so pure / Cleansing until it’s white as snow.” It’s a smart way to end the album because it’s one of the few songs grounded in concrete details, sending the listener off with faith that the next album could be more serious and remain a success.
Datarock’s simple approach to crafting strong pop almost causes you to write off the band as a forgettable gimmick. I mean, you never see the band without its trademark red tracksuits and oversized shades, and these aren’t the kind of life-altering lyrics you’re going to (regrettably) tattoo on your leg. However, dismissing Datarock as a silly act running down its 15 minutes would be a mistake. Will name-checking MySpace and Youtube in “The Blog” date the song in a bad way or let it serve as a snapshot of the era? I’m not positive, but I think the music will stand up as an example of what smart pop in the 21st century can sound like.