Review: The Go! Team - The Scene Between

Heartening as ever, the Go! Team’s fourth LP sees a newfound emphasis on full-fledged melodies.
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It’d be easy to just break loyalty; to go with the (likely) flow and shrug this one off as another cute passing rush that delivers nothing we haven’t heard before. But no. No! We’re always looking for the one crack in the armor that’s supposed to give us an excuse to put an old act behind us, because God knows there’s always some new flavor of paisley that we’re really supposed to be paying attention to (for the next week or two). “What’ve you done for us lately?”

Well hey, I’m glad you asked! Because, if you care, what beatmaster Ian Parton’s multi-gender, multi-racial dance-pop collective have “done for us lately” is in fact not just a pleasant reiteration of their sound - a sound that remains very much their own, unsoiled and unweathered by imitators - but a refinement and more rigorous organization of that sound toward - gasp! - actual songs.

By “actual songs,” I don’t mean to imply that the Go! Team haven’t written songs. What I mean is that their appeal on the first three records is more about an overall vibe: a clamorous yet danceable oasis of playground double Dutch cheerleader chants shouted or rapped exuberantly through big loud drums and distorted guitar and car-chase horns and daydreamy jingle samples. Didja get all that? Those of you who haven’t heard their music may think I’m exaggerating the approach, but let me assure you: it’s every bit as good as it sounds. Parton’s mix is consistently busy and dense, and treble-bent to such an extent that some people get irritated by the group after more than one or two songs at a time. They’re admittedly more of a party in your headphones than a party for the house or the club.

Yet what Parton has managed to do remains fairly novel: he successfully evokes the elated innocence of early hip-hop, but with lo-fi sound standing in for the previous (necessarily) primitive beat production. For better or worse, the Go! Team’s sonics will age better (which is to say longer) than a lot of even the best early hip-hop, because lo-fi sound already gives their music a feeling of something you’ve unearthed years later, maybe from a children’s treasure chest buried under a jungle gym for the summer.

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The odd thing about such an ebullient group is that, until now, they’ve never been all that tuneful. They’re more about hooks; stirring, bursting mantras and colors picked up as if by chance in a radiant chaos. The golden mean was achieved on 2004’s debut, Thunder, Lightning, Strike, which stands tall and humble in the mass of upbeat indie dance-pop. 2007’s Proof of Youth brought the noise with real horns, louder and more discordant guitars, the addition of full-time rapper Ninja, and a cameo from Chuck D himself that reinforced the Go! Team as an act very in-touch with the old school. But the songs weren’t quite as distinguished, and 2011’s Rolling Blackouts was charmingly colorful but also somewhat diffuse, with few standout highs beyond the glorious “Apollo Throwdown”.

With the group now sans-Ninja — meaning no raps — this is the first Go! Team album where every proper song is actually sung — and also missing instrumentalists/vocalists Chi Fukami Taylor and Kaori Tsuchida — meaning the music’s being put across by obscure guest vocalists — you might expect a sad withering of invention, and the release of the title track as lead single made me nervous at first; it seemed a little toosafely nursery-rhymey, a pleasant retreat. But in fact what we have with The Scene Between is a restatement of purpose that’s also something a little more than that.

For one thing, as implied, there are actual melodieshere — simple ones, usually, but real and winning. Though it took me days to get through the whole album (all 37 minutes of it) because I kept re-playing the first five tracks over and over again, I came to love just about every single one; only the more lulling, mid-tempo “Did You Know?” doesn’t really come off, and even that one has some pleasant guitar chimes and a tender vocal. This is one of those albums where you might not realize just how infectious it is until you find yourself humming different parts from different songs, all in a fairly short timespan. I know I have been, and it’s not just because I’ve had to re-listen to it all. It’s because I wantedto re-listen to it all.

It’s also one of those albums that’s almost hard or even futile to try to explain; you just want someone else to listen to it so you can go, “How about this, wasn’t that great! And this and this and this!” Where to even begin? Well, start with the title track (and lead single): where at first its more relaxed harpsichord riff struck me as too easy, its circular motion plays like watching a smile on a merry-go-round in slow motion, with beautiful lines of offhand rejuvenation ("From the wall to the window and the world between") and a squealing but weirdly soothing pre-chorus instrumental break that conceals a looped snatch of vocal murmur that’s almost elegiac in its weird, fleeting aural displacement.

Or take “Catch Me on the Rebound”, which conceals the full open-armed extent of its upturned chorus by only hinting at it first with a lower-pitched cadence, then bursting it open after the second verse with the words "And I remember why" backed by excited hand-claps and quick gated thwacks of percussion and one of those lovely retro synth tones of the kind Stevie Wonder and progressive rock acts used to use in the early ‘70s. (You’ll know it when you hear it.) Or how about “Her Last Wave”, which evokes My Bloody Valentine at their most relaxed and blissed-out, pure sparkling summer haze and ethereal girlish harmonies with synthesized flute flutters dotting in and out and shaky fuzz guitar rising out toward the end. Even the three sub-one-minute fragments are distinct and striking: the first a cheery acoustic sunny-day stroll, the second a “Funky Drummer” loop smeared with industrial guitar clamor, and the third a wistful little lullaby that sounds like an old doll commercial glimpsed in a groggy half-dreamed state at three in the morning. (Though research informs me it’s actually a from an ‘80s toilet paper company.) And the first ten seconds of opener “What D’You Say?” — thirty really, if you count the introductory fizz of a soda can that portends the rush you’re in for — are so gorgeous, so buoyant and heartbreaking and muscular all at once in their wordless uplift that it’s almost uncanny. (Is that a steel bell buried in there? A harp? Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.)

The album ends, with “Reason Left to Destroy”, on a note of even-headed cool that clearly doesn’t want you to let go of the over-arching implication to The Scene Between and to the Go! Team in general: that there’s work to be done, and that we can all do it happily, and that a lot of us already are. That’s indicative of the new album in particular, which puts across more encouraging mantras than I’ve heard in quite some time. And who doesn’t love a good mantra? Lines like “I remember why” or “Something’s getting closer” or “Is it really so hard to see?” or “In the morning, in the shadows, in the Milky Way”, rising out from these tunes the way they do, it just makes you wonder why we can’t we make more music like this. “Waking the Jetstream” — what a lovely title! — is particularly representative: “Waiting for something to arrive, waking the jetstream/Somehow, someway, we organize, waking the jetstream/Carry on, say it every day.” “It’s just a reason to arrive,” they sing, and with the keyed-up melody it’s delivered in it becomes one of those songs you didn’t even realize you needed as much as you did. Ditto “Blowtorch”, which opens with the line “Never anywhere to go/Never anyone to follow” but delivers it like they’re happy to pick up the slack and do what they can, sprinting through the seasons with happy restless anticipation.

Interestingly, despite the “long-lost time capsule” feel and all the references to popular music of decades past, from disco to Bronx hip-hop to shoegaze, Parton’s sound has consistently and clearly evoked this young century’s modern dance aesthetic. Stylistic eclecticism and genre subversion are dodgy prospects in music — hell, in anymedium — but Parton’s still works so well because we’re still very much living in the world his music will always bring to mind: a loud, bracing collage of dancing silhouettes and hyped-up flashes of big bright colors, all of it almost too much to take but worth fighting for anyway. All in all, Parton and his collaborators cumulate a muscular and even touching evocation of simply being rattled by the rush — happily. With fuller tunes now on their side, they can balance the martial and the joyous in just the way we need right now — and ain’t that a tough line to walk! B+