It used to be easy to recognize a Vitesse track when you heard it. Nearly always it would elicit the question, “What Magnetic Fields song is this?” Soon enough, it would become obvious that Stephin Merritt was not the artist behind the sound; the characteristic wit was missing, the layered production wasn’t there. In its place was a band that could write some decent, proudly derivative synth pop with catchy melodies and a singer with an almost perfect approximation of Merritt’s baritone. If anything, with their first two albums, A Certain Hostility and Chelsea 27099, Vitesse offered fans of Magnetic Fields’ earlier work a nice replacement after 69 Love Songs came out and Merritt began working within multiple genres. Now, with their latest album, You Win Again Gravity, the naive charm of their first two albums is gone, and Joshua Klein and Hewson Chen must prove they can hold their claim on such retro-styled synthesizer music.
You have to give Vitesse credit. They were a little ahead of their time in the whole retro electro-clash genre. Presently, they find themselves releasing their album amongst legions of musicians who have proudly adopted the electro-clash tag and have been churning out faceless keyboard kitsch, the only saving grace of which is the fact that its purveyors have guaranteed it to be a short-lived and incessantly mocked genre. As You Win Again Gravity begins, with an instrumental that features a lightly strummed guitar and live drums, I’d hoped they’d recognized their place amongst their peers and thrown out their overt references to the synth pop of the early ’80s in order to create something new, fresh and engaging. Unfortunately, those hopes disintegrated during the second and third songs. As the album progresses, its sound pins that hope down, repeatedly torturing it with this tired genre’s every cliche.
Vitesse goes far to point out their appreciation of early-’80s synth pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but the urgency and emotion of that band could not be more absent in Vitesse’s work. Klein’s vocals sound tired, as if singing his own songs is the most boring thing he has ever had to do. If he doesn’t even seem into his music, why would I be? Throughout the album, his limited range is showcased, and for the most part, his throaty and apathetic delivery is cringe-worthy. On “Another Way” the vocals are embarrassingly affected, and when the harmony of “budda bup ba” comes in (that’s Klein again, singing with himself as the equally bored background singer), I couldn’t keep my hand away from the skip button. A listener should not have to deal with such blatant insincerity in pop music. On previous albums, the vocal melodies had a catchy familiarity to them, but when, as on “Small Gift,” which lifts its melody directly from “Deep Sea Diving Suit,” you can instantly realize where the line wasstolen, it becomes downright irritating.
You Win Again Gravity is an excruciating 16 tracks, all following the same song structure, that by the end has amassed into one uninspired blur. The album’s one decent track, “Ride the Hook,” is buried deep in the fourteenth spot, and it stands out only because it features a strummed guitar (and not a simple riff blatantly ripped off from Bernie Summer) and a good beat with live drums. For the most part, this is soulless music and an enormous disappointment from a band that at one point seemed to be heading in a worthwhile direction.