Ribbon Music· January 26, 2018
On paper, it all seems so promising: an electro-psych-pop-whatever band, once nominated for a Mercury prize, loaded up with quirky tendencies and returning after three years with the most hit-packed, pop-oriented record of their career. And on the first listen, that hit-packed record (also known as Marble Skies) seems pretty interesting. You get the sense that there’s something exotic in here that you can’t quite place. Some sort of Mediterranean, Greco-Roman grandeur. Maybe it’s the evocative song titles like “Sundials” or “Marble Skies” or “Fountains.” Maybe it’s just the alluringly foreign “dj” sound in the band’s name. Or their penchant for swirly, colorful album art. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the actual music that’s so compelling.
Upon closer inspection, though, it’s definitely not the actual music. Django Django’s latest record is remarkable in just how utterly bland the entire confection is, try as they might to liven things up with wonky synths, samples, and danceable rhythms. It’s a Greek temple shrouded in a boring haze of overproduction. It’s a rave for people who really just need a nap. It’s a nice try.
Django Django have always tried to sell themselves on quirk. Sure, there’s some quirk in this album. Is that a snare in “Surface to Air” or a sample of someone coughing? Is “Sundials” really in 7/8 time? Check out those weird vocal effects at the beginning of “In Your Beat.” How fun! Ultimately, though, it’s not enough. They clearly want to sound wild, wooly, and unhinged. There are attempts at polyrhythmic African drumming and four-on-the-floor dance breakdowns, epic synth rave-ups and low-key psychedelic grooves. All of these things are unconvincing at best, as if the band members are simply going through the motions as pleasantly and unobtrusively as possible. What should be dynamic is washed out and uninspired, and elements that should probably be pushed into the background are loud and grating. Pretty much every song is smothered by an unbearable droning arrangement and enough reverb to drown a horse. It’s the drones that get me the most- there are a lot of deeply boring sounds oozing their way across the face of Marble Skies, and quite frankly it gets exhausting by about the fourth track.
Take singer Vincent Neff’s voice: it’s an exercise in monotony, devoid of any sort of expression, vibrato, or interesting characteristics besides sounding kinda nice. This voice, with all the emotional range of a sine tone, could probably be used in some interesting way by some other band. The songwriting minds behind Django Django, however, have decided to play to Neff’s remarkable strengths, which include sounding really calm and droning on the same note for ten seconds at a stretch with no discernible fluctuation in tone. As a result, the chorus of “In Your Beat” is practically unlistenable. What should be a thrilling musical peak is reduced to a bunch of synths and drums and stuff buckling under the weight of one long, drawn out, robotic, uninteresting line: “Could you be / Dancing with me?” I’d rather not, thanks.
“In Your Beat” is also the lead single, presumably because it sounds danceable and the kids go for that kind of thing nowadays. Fortunately, it’s an outlier. Most of the other tracks on Marble Skies are more psychedelic and less of a faux-EDM nightmare than “In Your Beat” and its equally dead-behind-the-eyes counterpart “Tic Tac Toe” (which, funnily enough, is the second single). I actually enjoyed a few tracks on this album. “Further” has a buoyant, catchy drum beat and an interesting melody in the chorus. An interesting melody shouldn’t be a rare treat to look forward to, but I suppose I’ll take what I can get. “Sundials” is probably my favorite track, built on an odd-metered piano riff and a surprising chord progression that slowly builds in intensity, adding in layers of female vocals and a clarinet (which is actually pretty cool) before bleeding into a spacey outro.
The rest of the album is fine. It’s forgettable, too. I won’t spend much time on the lyrics, as they’re mainly a patchwork of half-baked psychedelic images and generic phrases like “watching the world turn endlessly.” Supposedly, the albums’s overarching theme is “just this idea of things constantly turning and moving on… and you’re just kind of part of it.” I too have gotten high and stared at my hands, and I don’t really need Django Django to do it for me.
In retrospect, the band’s worst enemy on this album is the production and not the songwriting. I mentioned it once before, but man oh man did the mixing engineer need to cool it on the reverb. The whole record is so echo-y that it sounds like it’s being played out of the mouth of a cave. Nothing really pops. The drums are softened and sterilized, and the vocals lose any character they had to begin with. They wilt like soggy fries soaked in too much ketchup. Maybe it was the band’s choice, and I guess I have to respect that they were going for a specific vibe. I just didn’t like it.
So ultimately, Marble Skies is fine. There are some nice moments and some annoying moments, and plenty of very mediocre moments in between, and, overall, I don’t regret listening to it. I won’t be coming back to it again either, but that’s just my opinion. You might as well give it a listen and decide for yourself.