Danger: Rock Science!

Hidden Agenda

At least Menthol comes by their influences honestly. Singer/lyricist/guitarist Bathazar de Lay says in the promo sheet that their influences are “the music my mom did aerobics to when I was in middle school.” God, I feel old.

It is utterly fitting that I should be starting this review the same week that VH-1 have begun airing their (wicked awesome) I Love the ’80s series. Danger: Rock Science! is an unabashedly retro record. The material on it was originally recorded in the late ’90s and never released (this version is a rerecording), but if I played you Menthol and told you they were from the early ’80s, you would believe me.

They have their rockin’ big whomping beats, their so-cool-they’re-hot vocals, the shimmering synthesizers, sly lyrics, and loud guitar effects. What they do not have, from where I’m sitting, are the songwriting chops.

Most of the songs are of the “that’ll do” caliber, but they are unlikely to get the nod if Menthol ever makes it to the “Greatest Hits” stage. A great pop song, say “Head Over Heels” or “The Mayor of Simpleton” has to have at least two of three things: It must be witty or it must be blissful, and trickiest of all, it must make this appear effortless. Even the best songs here — “Future Shock,” the title track, and to a slightly lesser extent “Strange Living” — still sound like they’re trying too hard. You can almost see the grimaces of concentration.

It is not enough to be pastiche snapshots of other songs and bands; that way lies…well, what Menthol first reminded me of are those original songs “Weird Al” Yankovic does from time to time that are not specific parodies but loving roasts of a favorite artist’s sound. The title song here, for example, is a is a virtual rewrite of Freedom Of Choice-era Devo, only nowhere near that peak in Casale/Mothersbaugh’s songwriting.

That’s not a low blow — Yankovic’s songwriting is not inconsiderable, though overshadowed by his skill as a caricaturist — but it doesn’t make for a good album all the way through.

Lord knows there’s nothing wrong with going down to the club retro — in fact, that’s where you’ll find me most nights dancing with tears in my eyes (and I do the rock, myself). However, ’80s radio weekends and compilations are one thing, and bringing something truly new to new wave is quite another. Some have been able to do that in the new millennium (Laptop’s first album comes to mind), but there is something missing from Menthol’s mix, a certain lack of distinction.

A quick aside — I would just like to call your attention to the fact that I have not once resorted to a cigarette metaphor in this review.

So: Slot this record in the “next time someone’s doing a remake of Dr. Detroit, we’ll call you” (and you know that’s only a matter of time) box, otherwise… it is of narrow appeal.

To put it another way, trust me, when I would rather listen to the latest Jennifer Lopez single (that’s “listen to,” not “watch video of”), it is a sign of something… But then, I cannot say this too often: recreating the new wave of the 1980s is not enough, even for me.

However, god bless ’em for trying.


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