In the “Suggested Discussion Questions” at the end of the paperback edition of Never Mind the Pollacks, Neal Pollack asks, “Aren’t you tired of every goddamn New York band naming Gang of Four as one of their influences? Have you heard a Gang of Four song? What does it sound like? Because I honestly don’t know.” When I read Never Mind the Pollacks (which you should really read if you love music at all. It’s excellent), I had no idea what Gang of Four sounded like, but I had heard of them because some other people said they were important. Never one to take someone else’s word for it, I thought maybe someday I could get around to finding and listening to a Gang of Four album.
As luck would have it, Gang of Four decided to grace the world with a new album this year and NPR, dirty liberal socialists that they are, allowed me to listen to it for free. It’s called Content and, having listened to it several times now, I can see why lots of bands would name Gang of Four as an influence. There are some good bands and plenty of terrible ones that sound kind of like what I hear on Content. On highlight “Who Am I?”, singer Jon King asks, “Who am I/ when everything is me?” and it strikes me as one of the most relevant lines on the whole album. At this juncture, Gang of Four is surrounded on all sides by bands that they inspired and, for better and worse, Content doesn’t push the envelope at all, meaning that it is basically indistinguishable from the music Gang of Four has inspired since 1977. At its best, your friends will mistake it for a Blur or Franz Ferdinand record; at its worst, your friends will mistake it for an Incubus album. If you’re wondering what the “for better” is there, it’s that I imagine Gang of Four fans will enjoy this album just fine, although, like Neal Pollack, I honestly don’t know. I heard somewhere that Entertainment is the seminal Gang of Four album; perhaps I’ll look into that and report back to you later. But perhaps I also won’t. Because it would have to be a pretty significant improvement over Content to change my mind about Gang of Four.
Content is certainly not a bad album, musically speaking. But it’s still pretty hard for me to understand from listening to it what makes Gang of Four so goddamn important. If I heard these songs on the radio, I’d probably change the channel but, if there was nothing good on the other stations, I’d probably settle for this stuff. There’s some mildly exciting guitar playing on the album, the best of which sounds like Modest Mouse or Franz Ferdinand. Mind you, I’m not accusing Gang of Four of somehow ripping off bands they themselves influenced (did Gang of Four influence Modest Mouse? If not, why not?). I am suggesting, with ample evidence in my favor, that some of the bands inspired by Gang of Four are now making far better music than Gang of Four makes. I’ll take Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight over Content any day and I’ll take No One’s First and You’re Next over both of those albums (also, by the way, Modest Mouse, you could release a new album this year if you really wanted to. I’d be excited to hear it).
Basically, Content comes to the level of being tolerable FM radio fodder and never gets any better than that. There are a few decent lyrical quips here and there, found on songs like “Who Am I?” and “I Party All the Time”, but there are some embarrassingly cheap rhymes too, like the ones that open “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face” (they’re not worth repeating here; just imagine the sort of rhymes that Dr. Seuss would reject as too juvenile). Another problem: the more I listen to Content, the more I think that it’s not nearly as substantive as Gang of Four would have me believe (“A Fruit Fly in the Beehive”, with its constant chatter about “proof of life” comes off as if it wants to mean something, but the more I unpack the lyrics, the less it means. I guess a fruit fly in a beehive is technically proof of life, but so is my dog and Gang of Four didn’t bother writing a song about her). Many of the individual songs are repetitive, which adds up to a pretty repetitive album (but being repetitive never really counts against you on the radio). But I think Content really completes its shark-jump around “It Was Never Going to Turn Out Too Good,” which features Jon King (a pretty good vocalist, in all honesty) basically doing a duet with a robot. That song, though brief, takes a tolerably mediocre album and pushes it dangerously close to Suck Town.
Of course, it could just be that I missed the boat on Gang of Four. If I had gotten in on the ground floor with them, perhaps I’d be more charitable towards Content. Yes, maybe if I’d been alive and as into music in 1977 (when Gang of Four started) as I am today, I could revere this band the way so many others seem to. But, if I may be permitted to argue with myself for a second (because, let’s face it, I have the time), I don’t think that’s really the case. You see, there are plenty of bands that I love that got together prior to 1977 – hell, the Stooges had formed, made three albums, and disbanded by then. And, if you’ve read this blog even once in the nearly three years I’ve been writing it, you might have figured out that the Clash is one of my favorite bands of all time; and they were also just getting started in 1977. No, I think it’s just that I don’t care much for Gang of Four.
But I hate to leave a question unanswered. So allow me to restate and provide my best possible answer to Neal Pollack’s three-part question: “Aren’t you tired of every goddamn New York band naming Gang of Four as one of their influences? I would be if I payed attention to that sort of thing. Bands will say anything to a) sound important and b) get laid. Have you heard a Gang of Four song? I’ve heard several now, actually. What does it sound like? It sounds like the best things about Gang of Four can be found in albums I already own.
If you have a better answer, I’d sure like to hear it.