Because it's so abundantly clear what the members of the National Trust were going for on their sophomore album, Kings and Queens, it's not too difficult to point out where they went wrong. On the album's cover, the group's two core members are surrounded in clean pink: Mark Henning on his knees with arms crossed at the tail end of a disco move and main man Neil Rosario striking a fashion-forward pose in the background. Because of this - and the fact that my research led me to believe this was a marriage between disco pop and carnivalesque street, park and club sounds from the band's Chicago hometown - I anticipated a collage of dance beats and retro love-making tunes or anything to indicate that I was not about to be bludgeoned by retro cool for the sake of trendiness. Fortunately the winking and nudging are toned down for the duo's genuine desire to translate its vision of R&B, disco and pop, but the album can't overcome a slow start and too many layers that inexplicably peel off dry.
From a production standpoint, Kings and Queens is a bit of a marvel. Abel Garabaldi (R.Kelly, Fat Joe, Britney Spears) is certainly capable, the album spent some two years in production, and some of the cuts are greased together from more than seventy tracks. But the project is too much to appreciate aurally, mostly because a majority of the tracks lack in everything but production value. Opener "Elevators" works for dance-floor redemption a couple minutes too late - it begins with the lame and tiresome sounds of someone really enjoying some sort of high. "Secrets" patterns Rosario's falsetto nicely but typifies how the album tends to overshoot by choosing to forego a tight and enthused four-minute track by tacking on two minutes of obnoxious flute solo. Remarkably adding very little are the many instruments on "Secrets": clavinet, synth, Wurlitzer, guitar, cabasa, guiro, bass, drums, congas, bongos, claves, flute, piccolo, cello, double bass and vibes. Impressive, but it just shouldn't take this much to get someone on the dance floor.
Buried beneath it all but still one of the most intriguing aspects of Kings and Queens is the horn section, provided by eight brothers that call their group Hypnotic. Things pick up thanks to their muscular blast on "Stages," and they provide the vocals on the album standout, rapping over "Jacuzzis." The National Trust nails a couple of tracks when they strip it down a bit. "Show and Tell" is one of the better retro moments thanks to its simplicity and classic R&B guitar, rhythm and melody, and "New Sexy Touch" has a solid disco dance beat and a guitar piece that brings to mind Low-era Bowie.
Kings and Queens does not fail because of gluttonous egotism. Rosario and Henning had intentions and ambitions, and that's enough at times to drive an over-thought but technically superb outing such as this.
Plus, you have to root for a guy like Rosario. He bankrolled the National Trust's debut, Dekkagar (2002), by schlepping at a bank before Thrill Jockey picked it up. He made the blues-rock rounds in the Chicago scene (Drag City's Red Red Meat), so it's either no more complicated than Kings and Queens falling outside of the National Trust's core competency or it is more complicated because that's how they like it.
"It's Just Cruel" MP3