It’s a little too easy to point out the correlations between Fool’s Gold and Vampire Weekend. Lead singers looking to get in touch with their Jewish roots – check. Fusing Afropop with ‘80s new wave – double check. Creating distinctly American music with African undertones – that one I can only chalk up to Koenig and his crew.
Their eponymous debut from two years ago sounds entirely un-American. In fact, you might have purchased it from a dreadlocked vendor hovering around the cruise ship in Nassau. But it’s also what made them the most refreshing domestic Afropop outfit since Antibalas. Mix in leadman and bass player Luke Top’s ethereal Hebrew vocals and Lewis Pesacov’s (Crazy For You producer) classically trained guitar, Fool’s Gold became aural platinum.
After a year of intense touring (Glastonbury, The Hollywood Bowl) and public radio exposure (their song “Nadine” is the theme for The Madeleine Brand Show), they convened in a rented house on the edge of the Mojave Desert to record this impressive sophomore cut. What was a 12-person collective was whittled down to a core quintet. This they hoped would focus their sound more and allow the basic elements of what they’re all about – African guitar and sun-drenched synthpop – to take center stage.
Opening track “The Dive” gets your ears floating through a flurry of fast tempo mbaqanga guitar that settles into a slow, soft chorus anchored by Top’s crooning “No I won’t stop staring/ And I can’t stop watching/” amidst heavenly oohs and aahs. “Surprise Hotel” also began their debut in a similar sunny fashion, but the eerie chorus of the former makes the latter seem a little too one dimensional.
If there was a modern equivalent to the ubiquitous Clash hit “Rock the Casbah”, “Wild Window” would definitely fit the bill. It has one of the catchiest ska bass lines you will hear this side of the Thames. “Street Clothes” would be a much better song if it didn’t rely so heavily on generic synthesizers and its anticlimactic whimper of a conclusion. “Leave No Trace” features an excellent winding guitar track; unfortunately it’s accompanied by a not so inspiring rhythm section.
You can almost hear the dust flying off the 2” tape once the horns and electric organ kick in on “Narrow Sun”, which harkens back to the horn-filled tracks we’re accustomed to hearing from them. “Tel Aviv” brings you back to the glitz and glamour that it’s mere mention once demanded via its ‘80s Kenny Loggins-like hooks.
The last three songs of the album take distinct positions on their wide-ranging sound. “Mammal” is more of your traditional American pop song, but in a delightfully Krautrock way. If you want pure unadulterated conga frenzy, “Bark and Bite” is just what the Touareg ordered. Top channels his inner doo-wop, tempered by the unmistakable lamentations of Robert Smith, to craft a slow jam tailor-made for the 1984 Moonlight Ball and a broken Soft Cell heart.
To say that they have evolved since they broke onto the scene is an understatement. Top sings in English this time around. Pesacov’s guitar sluices more nimbly through Garrett Ray’s rock kit and Salvador Placencia’s eclectic percussion. But this album lacks the yearning we felt when Top broke out into one of his sorrowful Jewish harmonies or raw energy of a band simply playing as fast as their bodies allowed them to. It doesn’t strike that deep primal chord we rarely reach anymore. Their unique sound is still alive and well, just not as prominent as it once was. But I’ll be the first one to praise this slightly diluted version over aforementioned cerebral indie pop any day.