Review: Semicircle by The Go! Team

Pay attention, they’re talking to you.
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The Go! Team Semicircle cover art

Tremendous as usual. Always on the right track, these guys! Fifth album, in case you were counting, and once again Ian Parton and his international friends and comrades throw the heartening upper of a feedback-sampledelic old-school cheerleader-chant marching-party we need! Now with extra marching! Seriously: big strong drums; charismatic voices; generalized sentiments and mantras that can be encouraging and poignant; tunes so irresistible they’ll run through your head for weeks…is this so much to ask? Every time a Go! Team album comes out I start to feel not just motivated but…dammit, there’s a word for it…“happy?” Hope I’m using that right.

Anyone coming out of the beigework to back-handedly recommend Semicircle as more of the good-ol’ same that’s still basically preaching to the choir simply isn’t giving the group enough credit, not least because that attitude forgets that the choir can often use the encouragement. “Preaching to the choir” can be a perfectly useful and honorable occupation; it’s also called “motivating the troops.” And yeah, it’d be nice to keep some sparkle along the way, thanks.

Longtimers will be pleased that Ninja, wonderfully charismatic rapper/former lead vocalist, makes an appearance after sitting out the last album. (“She’s Got Guns” is her track, and it rules. The beat is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” with a funky ‘70s disco strut and the rapping gets better as it goes on, especially when the hype-girls and choruses come in. The clapping drum fill and trebly battle-heavy horns — stunning, just stunning!) Ninja might be elsewhere on the album, too, buried in chants and hums and whatnot— it’s hard to keep track. Parton’s insourcing international Soundcloud singers, touring instrumentalists, the Detroit Youth Choir, whatever sounds good to him, including bringing back noise-friendly guitarist Sam Dook, who was apparently absent.

The Scene Between, which everyone including me underrated, found Parton & Co. making fuller, “songier” songs and, quite simply, catchier tunes. Their tunes were always sweet enough, but over the last two albums, in particular, the sweetness has lasted more like actual dessert, rather than the (lovely, unique) bedroom collages that got this all started but were more like, I dunno, bonbons you snack on.

Newbies shouldn’t jump to conclusions from track one, “Mayday”, which might be the least interesting song on the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine — downright necessary as an opener because they can’t pretend everything’s A-ok, and in fact, they lean into these spoken words: “And so the days go on and on, and I don’t know if I can hold on much longer.” Surprised it was the second song they shared, though; it would’ve been nice to hear the choruses better. Maybe they wanted to remind us how much we loved those militant tracks from the 2004 debut that’s no longer clearly their best album.

The first single, though, “Semicircle Song”, is a fucking beautiful piece of music, the strongest of their marching-band songs — big tubas! trumpets in the bridge! — with a genuinely touching “We can do this, guys!” that locks its hook and colors so firmly into your brain that it gets at the pop utopia they’ve made such fun to envision. Whatever your “this” is, they want you to know they’re pulling for you! And the bridge, where seven mostly female voices introduce themselves and their Zodiac signs over steel drums? Oh man, I’m starting to feel things. This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. (Speaking of which, another development: more steel drums! Awesome!) “It’s just a thing we do, we goin’ down the middle, round the outside….”

Semicircle’s many pleasures — of melody, of tone color, of ideals never losing the beat — deserve an essay’s worth of exposition (no, really), so some quick hosannas as we wind down. Note the weird little bleeping aqua-groove of “Chain Link Fence”, with that soothing wistful backward loop moving into a faint guitar screech disguised as a wash of ‘60s Bollywood strings (or is it the other way around?) — who could resist?

Similarly soothing is the penultimate “Plans Are Like a Dream U Organise”, a song as lovely as its title with a shimmering bells-and-flute arrangement and a Dutch singer named Amber Arcades sounding like she’s singing to herself on a stroll; the tumble of horns and noise through the choruses into the outro is like…why can’t it just be like this all the time? The equivalently “songwriterly” “The Answer’s No — Now What’s the Question?”, a midtempo melody with chiming electric guitar, isn’t as great as “Her Last Wave”, the last album’s dead-on glorious “Blown a Wish” approximation whose tune “Answer’s No” resembles (the new one’s maybe too accurate an evocation of a high-school marching band), but the guitar sparkles enough to play the whole “summer kiss-off disguised as a kiss” (or is it the other way around?) as pop Zen.

Unimportant quibble: “Chico’s Radical Decade” is one of those pleasant floaty-flutey instrumentals they sometimes do, but stretched to three minutes where the last album’s were only a minute or so. (And the other interlude, a much shorter woozy feedback thing, is something even a superfan like me won’t need.)

As for the hip-hoppier stuff, aside from the aforementioned “She’s Got Guns” and the great sunshine pile-driver “Hey!” (with breathy ‘60s-style French-pop spoken-word!) there’s “All the Way Live”, rapping courtesy of a 1983 “after-school hip-hop project.” Sure it breaks into the sing-along hook a bit too quick and awkward, but the song gets better as it densens-up and gains momentum, becoming almost drive-by in its motion, and the horn-xylophone counterpoint is a small pleasure. It really rallies the spirits!

So, yeah: not just “the same old thing.” The same new thing! Go! Team albums are mixed to sound pretty much the same no matter where the sound’s coming from, and anyone still bitching about tinny “earbud” sound might remind themselves that most people can’t afford big speakers anymore. This socialized aesthetic is very heartening because for all the elated innocence this music evokes, there’s always a push to it. Note the cover: everyone in the gymnasium is dressed playfully, all in it together, but their faces are dead-serious. A welcome attitude, this, because if “Bodak Yellow” is our battle song we’re gonna fuckin’ lose. (“But what if your feelings weren’t the same as mine? But maybe the warning lights were right this time?”) Pisses me off that dippity-do bullshit like The Avalanches will continue to get the raves the Go! Team still deserve.

One more thing: I’ve been playing “If There’s One Thing You Should Know”, the most unbrokenly danceable song on the album, about 20 times a day all week. It starts with “If there’s one thing you should know, before I disappear…” and goes on from there with a simple tune (sung by Angela Won-Yin Mak) and equally simple steel drum riff that is so endearingly catchy together that I could listen to it on loop for hours and not get tired. Sure the “bridge” isn’t even really a bridge, with a recorder following the tune verbatim. But good tunes and good grooves are not to be dismissed or condescended to, especially these days. Like they say elsewhere: “If we stay all the way wherever, if we give enough time/If we do and the view gets better, maybe, maybe we might.” That last minute, where it feels like the song’s fading out and gaining power at the same time? I feel the tears come to my eyes.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, give this band all the money. All the money. Or at least enough so they can move down the street from me into a big fun house so I can bring them cookies. Wait, what? Whaddya mean, “I can’t afford cookie batter?” Whaddya mean, “We gave all the money to alternative pop musicians The Go! Team?” Well, y’know…I was mad for a second there, but: fair trade. Looking forward to seeing you in April, guys! Friends forever! A MINUS