After just two short years as a band, Midnight Movies has been rewarded for the very element that many groups are criticized for: blatantly stealing from their influences.
Formed in Los Angeles in 2002, Midnight Movies combines the basic garage-rock-sans-punk sound of Television with the spacey psychedelia of Moog-loving Swedes Sagor & Swing. Differentiating them from a bevy of retro bands, however, is Gena Olivier, a drummer/vocalist widely compared to Nico but possessing the same intense yet subtle dichotomy of the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan.
Olivier is the heart of the band, not only because she acts as primary songwriter, but also because her vocal style sets the band at a distance from the listener. Like Nico, she enunciates to the point of sounding like a European student recently taught proper English — she can say the words perfectly, but is not fluent enough to say them confidently. Lacking range but fitting perfectly into the key of all her songs, Olivier sounds satisfactory in terms of her tone but too vocally shallow to act as mediator between band and listener.
Midnight Movies is musically talented, but their debut sounds intentionally burnt out. On “Words for a Love Song,” the band takes their lyrical content to a detached and arguably cynical level, possibly to avoid throwing themselves in the same sappy category as bands they appear to be mocking. To be more precise: “Captured. Consumed. Cherished. Flirt. Potent. Intrigue. Excite. Intense. Exposed. Gray. Sudden. Dismay. Adore. Passions. Craving. Musical. Gracious. Delight. Adore.” But are they actually mocking anything, or is this the sincere emotion that wants to emerge? Stretching nineteen words into five minutes and forty-eight seconds of dismal melody, the song ends without explaining itself.
The album’s highlights are a bit less mysterious. “Strange Design” ends with a somewhat distorted jam session not unlike those featured in a number of Velvet Underground tracks, and a haunting but detached intro would make “Just to Play” fit between any two songs on Clinic’s Walking with Thee. Most unexpected, however, is the hook that “Mirage” essentially shares with Trail of Dead’s “Worlds Apart.”
You might question the value of a band that I’ve compared to at least seven other artists (not to mention the number of artists who actually did influence them), but the most surprising aspect of Midnight Movies is that despite how unoriginal they may seem based on the number of similarities they share to — well, everyone in the music industry — their debut full-length is actually good. LA Weekly nominated Midnight Movies for Best New Artist in 2003 and Best Pop/Rock Band in 2004, and while still unsigned, they were asked to perform on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Others have been quickly catching onto their talent, and what makes the group so valuable is that although they fail to sound anything but distant and unemotional, their musical talent ties them together in a way that makes them one of the most solid bands to have formed in the last two years.