In Brief: They use excess to mock excess. It’s great fun.
When I first heard about the Canadian band Metric, I was tempted to make a joke about how they had been accepted in every country but America. Aside from the geeky pun involved there, I can’t speak to whether this statement holds true of their past success in the United States versus their home country. All I know is that I’d never heard of this band before their latest album Fantasies was recommended to me last year. And as albums to get your feet wet with go, Fantasies seems to be a pretty good introduction to a band with a gift for making punchy, hook-laden, electronic rock songs. Whatever they might have been doing before, they’re quite instantly accessible now, with the sometimes downcast and sometimes sultry vocals of Emily Haines right up front, guiding the band through a highly danceable 10-song workout that takes the occasional detour into more introspective territory. It’s not rocket science – I feel like I’ve heard similar from Garbage or Plumb in past years (and I’m sure you could name other chick-fronted rock bands that have flirted with new wave, techno, or any other decade’s version of danceable rock music) – but it’s not overproduced glossy pop either. Guitars and synthesizers carry equal weight, with live drums adding the needed punch to songs that would otherwise be highly mechanized. It’s a balance of (wo)man and machine that is highly effective, if not terribly original.
At first listen, you might not find much lyrically to separate Fantasies from the slinky come-ons of your average gyrating pop star. Several songs overtly express sexual desire, or at the very least a burning desire for companionship, and the ones that don’t directly address this still seem occupied with fulfillment of needs or a lack thereof. At times, the band is knowingly, cheekily superficial (though they only approach anything approaching an “explicit lyrics” warning on one song). At others, when you listen more carefully, they really seem to be addressing perceived needs that leave us empty. It’s all stuff that popular music has gone over a great many times, but I think there’s just enough wit and irony expressed with to make Metric’s view on the topic worthwhile. If you’re fine with the inherent kitch in the latest Yeah Yeah Yeahs disc, then this’ll probably be about your speed as well (though Emily Haines doesn’t quite have the same instantly memorable quirkiness as Karen O).
It’s also worth noting that while Fantasies is heavy on the programmed elements, the actual process of constructing most of its songs was quite organic. Emily and her bandmates often started with nothing but a lone piano or acoustic guitar, operating on the belief that a good song should still be worthwhile when stripped down to the bare bones of chords, melody, and lyrics. And while it’s very true that a defining drum beat or rhythm guitar loop may help to lodge the hooks in your head, the basic gist of each song is easily grasped with a chorus that would play just as strong in an acoustic version. Maybe one or two tracks exist where the production and the specific texture of the sound define the song more so than what it has to say. But such experiments are the exception rather than the rule. One might criticize Metric for not experimenting more with this approach, but taken for what it is, the band shows a reasonable amount of diversity from track to track, with a few of the minimal moments being the most pleasantly surprising. At 10 songs, you know what you’re getting – a short but sweet dose of alternative pop energy. This is the sound the band wanted to make, as there was no label intervention with this one – the band went the indie route when releasing this one, and judging from the exposure a few of its singles have gotten, they may not be a household name but they’re not exactly starving for popularity either. It’s a balance between the stuff that shoots straight to your brain’s pleasure centers and the stuff that you have to chew on for a bit. I can respect that.
1. Help, I’m Alive
The opener gives you a pretty good idea of the human/machine balance that makes up Metric – Emily’s strong yet nervous vocals are right up front, coupled with a drum beat that pounds over and over, mimicking the beating of a heart. It took me a few tries to get into this one – I enjoy the synths and the guitars even though the band isn’t in full-on rock-out mode, but at first, I thought the pre-chorus (the part that starts with “Help, I’m Alive”) was the song’s refrain instead of the actual chorus (the part that starts with “If you’re still alive, my regrets are few”), and so I thought the song had a bit of an awkward hook to it. Understanding the structure a little better, I think it packs all the punch it needs to in the right places. Being alive might not seem like something that would cause a person to cry for help, but Emily plays it as a person who is all too aware of her own mortality, her heart “beating like a hammer”. The heart does this when we are scared, but also when we are excited. Perhaps it’s a song about the fear of actually taking control of your own life.
2. Sick Muse
If “sick” is taken in the vernacular sense of “freaking awesome” and “muse” is short for “amusing”, then I guess the title aptly describes the song here. The band catapults forward with a much bouncier beat and and a simple but effective guitar riff that zig-zags its way into the brain. Here the band imagines Cupid as a demented playwright, setting foolish romances in motion that people fall into like mindless actors playing but never questioning their parts. That chorus of “Everybody, everybody just wanna fall in love/Everybody, everybody just wanna play the lead” is irresistible. You can really move to this one. Just don’t try to hit on someone while it’s playing in a club. You’d kind of be missing the point.
3. Satellite Mind
This one might be a little more appropriate for the club scene, as it keeps the pace up while taking on a more sinister tone, as Emily plays the role of a voyeuristic stalker, determined to hunt her man down by any technological means necessary. It’s the tartiest and most explicit song on the record, though as far as such songs go, it’s probably innocuous compared to what the average shock diva is peddling to pop radio these days. The line “heard you f*ck through the wall” is really as bad as it gets. Beyond that, it’s mostly a combination of depression and obsession – wanting someone so bad that you can’t function without them, even if it means you’d rather be spying on them with another woman than spending time alone. It’s kind of sick, but admittedly, pretty catchy.
4. Twilight Galaxy
My favorite track on the record actually isn’t one of the throbbing rockers – it’s this distant, cold, synth-heavy little alien that oozes coolness despite its insistently detached mood. Minimalism really works in the band’s favor here, letting the sustained synth notes lead the way while a simple drum loop sparkles in the background, almost like the lonely memory of what would otherwise be an intense dance track, heard muffled from the other side of a wall. Things get more glittery and layered farther into the song as Emily provides her own BGV’s and the guitar chords shimmer like another set of keyboards. Through it all, Emily is in defiant denial, casting off the warnings and criticisms of those who would dare to bring her back down to Earth and declaring, “I’m higher than high, lower than deep”, even though the restrained nature of the song suggests and out-of-touch diva living in her own little bubble. (Which is not to say I think Emily Haines is that way – she’s playing a character.) The song gradually dissipates and fades into stardust where you might expect it to climax – the band actually goes the other way and gives it a thrashing, drum-heavy coda in concert, but for a studio version, they needed to keep it out-of-touch with reality, and it totally works.
5. Gold Guns Girls
Ah yes – money, weaponry, and sex. The guaranteed ways to give most men a woody. If you’re uncomfortable listening to a song about all the things that are supposed to “get you off”, then you might find yourself reaching for the skip button as this song hurtles forward with its sick rallying cry, but pay a little more attention to the description of all of this hedonistic excess, and it makes sense. There’s a guy out there who’s got everything, apparently, to the point where all of these tittilating little toys can’t get him excited any more. It’s an apt description of what happens when one fully indulges in an addictive fantasy – it’s never enough and you always want more. It turns out to be a commentary on materialism, and we’ve heard rockers address this subject before, but there’s something about the background vocals crying “Go, go go!” and “More and more, more and more” that perfectly illustrates the irresistible craving despite that little part of our brains that should no better. It even works that the main guitar riff is almost completely monotonous, and the song is almost relentless in its energy right up until the end – you’re just scarfing down the same thing over and over in larger and larger quantities, with no sign of stopping. In the midst of it all, there’s the cute girl who was once your goal but who has now been used and discarded, asking, “I just want to be your friend, why you giving me a hard time?”
6. Gimme Sympathy
This seems to be one of the singles that got Metric some bigger exposure, and while I’m glad for that, I don’t think it’s really the strongest song for them to have put out as a single. It’s got a breezy enough rhythm and pace, a little more poppy and less furious than most of the front half of the album, with a melody that breathes a bit more. It’s almost straight-up electronic pop, with the rock elements downplayed a bit. The thing I can’t quite get past is the lyrics, which make passing references to songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with the chorus directly addressing both and asking which one you’d rather be. The implication here seems to suggest that Emily’s trying to talk a guy into thinking outside the box and doing something more weird and creative, like The Beatles in their heyday, instead of playing up the macho grittiness or however one might characterize The Stones. (I know very little about The Stones, so please don’t throw stones at me if this characterization makes no sense.) The reason it doesn’t work for me is because the music is too middle-of-the-road to really be worthy of name-checking either band. Nothing bad about it, but a song urging someone to think like The Beatles should be willing to put its money where its mouth is.
7. Collect Call
The second of the mellower, more minimalistic songs on the album starts off with more of a tender mood, with an electronic “thump” that only barely registers and a lonely guitar figure filling in just enough of a rhythm for Emily to meekly sing over. She sounds her most tender and inviting here, as if asking a lover to give it another go and try to stoke the fires that are in danger of burning out. The chorus is an inviting request in which she beautifully sings “Keep me closer, I’m a lazy dancer/When I move, I move with you”. The music gets much more dense and synth-happy to fall in line with this sentiment. It’s one of the few moments on the album that isn’t spiked with a tinge of irony or derision – there might be a bit of melancholy to this approach, but it’s thoroughly genuine. (Not that I minded the group being wry, but an occasional break from that is nice.)
8. Front Row
And now we’re back to sinister mode as this song comes slinking in, with its ominous “oooh”s, dirty rhythm guitar, and loud drums. Despite all that, there’s still a “half-there” sense to Emily’s vocals, even in the rapidfire rhymes that she navigates leading up to the chorus. I’m not quite sure what to make of this one – she describes being at the front row of some sort of performance, with the implication that she’s been drinking and possibly drooling over a favorite performer. But there’s a bitterness to her comment that “Burnout stars, they shine so bright.” Either she’s talking about herself and her own bitterness over a failed career (again, I assume this is a character that she’s playing), or the guy she’s planning on throwing herself at when he’s on his way down and desperate to be loved. It’s pretty devious if you read between the lines.
The last of the slower songs is a rather morose, minor-key dance between the electric guitar and the keyboard all the way through, as if we’ve caught our starlet at rock bottom and now we’re peering up out at the top of the pit with her. She’s pretty devastated, describing her life as some sort of plane crash or shipwreck that has left “all the survivors kissing in the rain”. There’s the sense that she’s been picked for a destiny greater than herself, since she alludes to fighting a battle and comments “I want to leave but the world won’t let me go.” Lyrically, it’s fairly minimal, so I’m having a bit of trouble figuring it out, but I love the overall mood that they created here. When the drums finally kick in at the bridge, it’s one of those moments that perfectly illustrates the band’s balance between restraint and intensity.
10. Stadium Love
The record’s final song seems to be the one that they didn’t subject to the “campfire test” where the song had to work stripped down to merely piano or guitar. That’s because the drums are the dominant instrument here, with the synths and guitars hovering around the same chord, packing more of a rhythmic wallop than a melodic one. It’s a highly mechanized, yet excitingly energetic, song about a cage match to the death between all kinds of super cute furry animals. Wait, what? Are they serious? Probably not. It’s sheer ridiculous excess, but I find it amusing. (Don’t worry – the animals are not described as graphically disemboweling each other or anything like that.) This was probably just a case of the band blowing off some steam and creating a mindless fun song to get the fans bouncing at concerts – its placement as the finale suggests that they wanted to end a mostly downer album on an up note. Emily informs us that there’s no such thing as a spectator sport here – “Every living thing pushed into the ring, fight it out to wow the crowd.” You could take it as a sniping commentary on how low reality TV has suck, that we’ve basically got the equivalent of lions mauling Christians in ancient Rome passing as entertainment today. But it’s a bit too giddy and tongue-in-cheek for me to drag it down with that sort of an analysis. Just thrash your head about and try not to get brained by that cougar that’s about to swing a metal chair at it. (I mean an actual cougar. Not the other thing.)
Okay, so in the end, there might be more nightmares than fantasies here. But, better to point out flaws in the pursuits of celebrity and gluttony than to play them off as good things. That’s what I like about Metric – they use the artificial and superficial in the process of mocking the artificial and superficial, yet without being so over-the-top about it that it plays as total self-parody. I wish they’d tweak things a bit more next album so that they sound a little more experimental and less streamlined, but then, maybe I should check out their older albums and see if they’ve traveled this road in the past.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Help, I’m Alive $1.50
Sick Muse $2
Satellite Mind $1
Twilight Galaxy $2
Gold Guns Girls $1.50
Gimme Sympathy $.50
Collect Call $1
Front Row $1
Stadium Love $1.50
Emily Haines: Lead vocals, synthesizer, guitar
James Shaw: Guitars, theremin
Josh Winstead: Bass
Joules Scott-Key: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: