When the retro-minded Louisville, Kentucky, three-piece VHS or Beta popped into indie consciousness with its instrumental, disco-rock hybrid debut Le Funk (2002), it was notable perhaps only because of its prescient anticipation of the imminent indie-dance wave that soon uncrossed the arms of a nation of hipsters. The band’s Astralwerks follow-up, 2004’s Night on Fire, retooled disco into the disco-punk it may have had a hand in creating, and though labeling them Johnny-come-latelys might have been factually inaccurate, it really didn’t matter because there just weren’t any tunes. Buzz and favorable zeitgeist were probably VHS or Beta’s only points of interest.
So with full breakout status just barely dodging the group, Bring on the Comets, comes off as an almost incredulous attempt to clear out the gimmicky label by featuring an onslaught of go-fer-the-jugular, verse-chorus-verse pop tunes. Every moment of every track on Bring on the Comets is excessively saddled with hooks and big bangs that unfailingly loop and fizzle, kinda like a kid who lights a paper bag stuffed with fireworks in hopes of a spectacular array but ends up with a flaming lump of ash on the sidewalk.
That’s a shame, because there is one truly dazzling aspect of Comets — the incredible guitar work. Guitarist/vocalist Craig Pfunder (with the help of My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on “The Stars Where We Came From”) has distilled nearly every fashionable rock guitar style of the past two or so decades through his group’s hyper-stylized strobe-light filter: New Order’s melodic note-noodling, U2’s huge delays, Daft Punk’s shattered house guitar, Teenage Bandwagon’s distorted alt-jangle, Sonic Youth’s octave-jumping drone — all juxtaposed in what at its best moments could be described as a splendiferous mess.
It’s easy to see why such an overcooked bouillabaisse ends up so bland, especially when the guitar pyrotechnics, impressive though they are, are wrapped around a set of mid-tempo emo ballads. “Can’t Believe a Single Word” probably sounds more like ’90s alterna-pop than the guys would probably fess to. Ditto for “Take It or Leave It,” which bears an unfortunate resemblance to “It’s My Life”-era Bon Jovi. Elsewhere, “She Says” provides the perfect example of VHS or Beta’s built-in theatrics. Everything is so annoyingly perfectly placed that it makes me wonder if the band’s working from a crib sheet that came with a special edition of some Rapture album.
Had there maybe been a more analytical approach to creating shamelessly tricked-out pop songs, maybe some of Brings on the Comets would sound more successful. There’s no reason for drummer Mark Guidry’s insistent disco rhythm on every song. Opener “Love in My Pocket,” pretty much straight-up power pop, would’ve benefited from a classic meat-and-potatoes percussive approach, as would have much here. Taking just one of the approaches the band tries here (the overblown New Order homage of the title track is probably the best) and expanding on it coulda made these guys into, well, at least another version of the Killers. No doubt VHS or Beta has some impressive chops, but from here the band feel more suited to studio work. As song makers, there’s nothing doing.