[sic] Magazine

Strange Names – Use Your Time Wisely

Are you one of those people who tends to believe that good music ceased to be recorded after 1989? That music was never the same after Spandau Ballet disbanded? Well, I possibly have something here which may well interest you. Remember when bands like Mr. Mister, Icehouse, Go West, A-ha, Thompson Twins and Howard Jones were dominating the airwaves?

The 80s saw a massive hotchpotch of different styles. The meteoric rise of ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ in the early 80s saw a huge gulf between the kind of music which dominated the charts and that which operated below the radar. People tended to favour one and not the other, i.e. you tended to be a pop fan or you moved through a constant cycle of change in the world of indie – from the jangly guitars of The Smiths – to goth music such as The Sisters Of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim – and later to shoegaze bands such as RIDE and Curve who appeared at the tail-end of the 80s. Like a lot of things of course, there were plenty of exceptions to the rule; bands such as The Cure managed to extrapolate both the pop & indie camps without seemingly upsetting their core fanbase.

So why am I banging on about the 80s when the debut album from Minneapolis-based three-piece Strange Names only landed in my CD player a fortnight ago? Well, the speedier ones amongst you will have already guessed that there’s a definite 80s vibe going on here. I’ve been listening to this album for the past couple of weeks and I’m caught somewhere between liking it and not being sure. There are days when I’m really into it and others when I just end up falling out with it. I’ll say here and now that it’s not a bad album, I just have a feeling that I’ve kind of heard it all before. Chances are – if you’re into modern-day bands flaunting the 80s vibe (step up Phoenix, The Naked And Famous, Foster The People and The Killers) and you’re not familiar with the list of bands above, then you’re likely to see this album as a whole lot of fun. While ‘Only Boy’ might feel in good company on, say, the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ soundtrack, it also possesses a great party vibe which I reckon most people would be quite happy to dance and sing along to in 2015. Similarly, ‘Return’ could be a reinvention of ‘Living By Numbers’ by New Musik (number #13 in 1980) but also has a catchy tune and presses all the right buttons.

The band references above aren’t actually too wide of the mark – there are a good mixture of all of them across the album. The real question for me is whether Use Your Time Wisely carries enough weight or whether it’s all gloss. I tend to usually look for something deeper in the music I like to listen to and I’m kind of left wondering whether what’s on offer is enough – whether this album actually delivers. Much of 80s music was criticised for being ‘skin-deep’, i.e. there was no real depth to either the music or the lyrics (the same accusation could indeed be made about much of today’s chart acts, to be fair) – but that’s a completely understandable observation. Music after all is – or should be – an art form, and therefore purchasers have a right to feel that songs have been crafted and laboured over, not simply put together by a song-writing team and knocked into shape by a producer. With regards to Strange Names’ debut, I’m really split on this last point – ‘Only Boy’ and ‘Where & Why’ both suffer in that they don’t really go anywhere – there’s no real chorus and nothing to hook you in. Other tracks such as ‘Brick City’ and ‘Supernatural Silence’ fare better, but I’m left with a overriding feeling that the tracks simply need to deliver more. Bands such as The Naked And Famous and Foster The People have become successful because they’ve taken the 80s, torn up the rule book and put it back together, managing to sound both familiar and fresh at the same time – I struggle with saying the same about Strange Names’ debut.

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