This self-titled LP by A·R·E·Weapons, their first, is less the dawn of a musical movement than its culmination. Electroclash dutifully followed New York retro-rock, which saw bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs ride the coattails of ’60s garage and ’70s punk further into the sun than either needed to be taken. Electroclash uses the same appropriationist strategy, only relying on early ’80s synth pop as a reference point. In terms of credibility anyway, it’s a sinking ship-electroclash appropriation isn’t due to any heady theoretical concerns, just lack of imagination.
So at this particular moment, a pop album that sounds this fresh and this sexy delivers a twofold KO: it reveals retro-rock as a tired, easy solution to the very now feeling of musical boredom, and it drops a bomb on legions of wannabe electro-poseur bands-because this is the album they all wished they had made.
A·R·E·WEAPONS is a very logical grouping of electronically-based musical influences: Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, Big Black and underground hip-hop. This is dirty, funny, sexy and mistake-free music. It sets you up, it knocks you down. The setup: “Don’t Be Scared” and “Strange Dust,” the album’s first two songs.
“Don’t Be Scared” is tinny synth, nasty beat, and Brain McPeck (yeah, Brain) gasping for air, yelling about some creep walking around alone, getting high, sucking dick, blowing off work. Matt McAuley’s big, fuzzy guitar riff leads into the chorus: “Dude, that’s cool/Dude, that’s cool…It’s fuckin’ awesome!” The protagonist of “Strange Dust” is another slimy character, a kid with glassy eyes and a razor blade playing Space Invaders on St. Mark’s Place. This one riffs on hip-hop, with an icy synth overlaid with a big bad beat and some incredible production courtesy of Marc Waterman. Can A·R·E·Weapons actually replicate this live? Skip around seamlessly from cold, precise hip-hop to messy guitar thrash? God, I hope so.
With this album so stuffed with standout songs, it’s hard not to talk about each of them individually. “A·R·E·” (representing ‘Attitude/Raw/Energy’) is one of the many manifestos on A·R·E·WEAPONS, and finds them mixing Big Black and testosterone metal, effortlessly out-Detroiting all those new Detroit bands and all those new New York bands that try to sound like old Detroit bands.
“Fuck You Pay Me” is more scummy hip-hop, and a good excuse to bring up A·R·E·Weapons’ ridiculous posturing and laughable attempts to sound threatening. This “fuck you” is probably directed at some restaurant boss who stiffed Brain a shift’s pay. “Street Gang” is straight Suicide, a generation removed from when violence was a real phenomenon for New York’s avant-garde community. A video game-y synth is coupled with a shivering, repetitive riff the kind that Martin Rev’s Casio belched out circa 1975. It’s not a romanticization of violence for the sake of territorial pride, it offers up violence as a plausible and logical action as a subversion of boredom, and this is the whole concept of this album.
There’s a nagging temptation to read Brain’s proclamation “From skyway to subway, this is street gang turf” as the hoodlum’s reticent submission to a much bigger hood, global terrorism. Ditto when, in “A·R·E·,” he sings he’s “living in the murder zone.” But to accept these as political statements expressive of the fear and paranoia that gripped New York in late 2001 and 2002 would be to miss the point. This record is about the search for methods of individuation, and revealing what happens when parents either ignore their bored suburban kids or steer them toward forced homogenization. The clues are all right here — the “strange” kid playing Space Invaders with a razor blade is the most obvious — and that’s why it’s partly funny when Brain pretends to be threatening, and partly scary, because one need not dig so deep for examples of the homogenization of America resulting in alienation and violence.
Hence “Hey World,” the surprisingly epic closer to A·R·E·WEAPONS, and an ode to the culture this band grew up in. The culture is typical suburban America: soccer practice, student elections, shitty radio stations. How to feel vital, to feel real when everyone else is just going through the motions? “Robbing and stealing,” according to Brain. “A bored kid is a dangerous kid.” It’s true, and on a larger level, this pervasive wave of nostalgia that continues to sweep music, urban fashion, and visual art seems like a desperate plea from A·R·E·Weapons’ (and my own) generation for an impossible do-over, to erase history starting from whenever everything got boring and everything became the same. Violence may not be a perfect solution to the problem, but at least it feels like living. So maybe A·R·E·WEAPONS carries some theoretical weight after all. And maybe this is the best debut album to come out of New York since The Ramones. Is it? Dude, it’s fuckin’ awesome.