Free Blood is an object lesson in indie’s delicate negotiations with dance music. Critical response is generally favorable when rock bands grow ashamed of their guitars and turn to electronic music for inspiration — think Kid A or Merriweather Post Pavilion. (There’s a world of difference in the former album’s willful miserabilism and the latter’s recession-ready domestic interiors, even though they inspired a similar critical response.) Free Blood might sound more like a rock band than either of those examples — their samplers are loaded up with realistic-sounding toms, and they like to embellish their songs with cello rather than electronic scribbles — but ironically only because they were never faithful to it in the first place.
In contrast to the critical pocket narrative — it boils down to “transcending genre to Make a Statement” — this Brooklyn duo, featuring ex-!!!er John Pugh and fashion designer Madeline Davy, are in an open relationship with disco, indie rock, and various points in between and beyond. There are hints of spacey dub and denatured Afrobeat in their sound, and even if the production’s not seamless, this stuff is recorded to sound insanely spacious next to much recent dance music.
Opening track “Never Hear Surf Music Again” features a horn breakdown dopplerized in a way that makes it sounds it’s careening out of a long tunnel. Production flourishes like these make the album’s first six tracks — the singles of the title — worth listening to. The beats swing some serious lumber, as you’d expect from the former !!! percussionist, but the singles, for its first half, is less concerned with beats per se than texture. “Royal Family” folds clinking glasses, deep toms, and geometric cello figures together to make up the album’s most immediately compelling track. Pugh’s soul-inflected croons and Davy’s studied, Nancy Whang-esque ennui pinch and pull at the edges of “Parangatang,” whose steady tumbling pulse and Nord Lead sawtooths bring it closer to techno than the album’s other tracks.
In the end, there are just two problems with The Singles, but they’re big ones: The singles themselves fall just shy of memorable, and the remixes that make up the second half of the compilation are totally superfluous. There’s a lot to admire in the songs, but their cumulative effect doesn’t transcend the interesting textures they bring out of their material. The remixes, on the other hand, seem a little lost trying to figure out how a re-edit could improve on the original. Most settle for a pretty predictable pattern: chopped vocals up-front, introduction of a 4/4 beat, and a more or less random re-introduction of constituent parts thereafter. You could make a lot of interesting points about how Free Blood’s on a wavelength other dance acts couldn’t tune into if they wanted to, and you’d be right; you’d also be hard-pressed to find a reason to return to this compilation.