Red Wire Black Wire is an indie band founded at Wesleyan and based in Brooklyn that slings antiquated synths and just put out its first LP, “Robots and Roses.” So to answer everyone’s first question, no, they don’t sound like the MGMT. This is a good thing, I promise. Instead they play something that’s getting rarer and rarer these days: synth-pop, specifically the un-funky, mopey variety popularized long, long ago by The Human League, Depeche Mode, and The Cure. Oddly, in a world where the Hot New Bands are copping ideas from ’90s gods like Built to Spill and Superchunk, RWBW’s affinity for the New Wave feels like a throwback to the first half of the decade and its – to quote James Murphy – “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.”
So I’m guessing this quintet isn’t trying to be cool. That’s smart, because they are certainly not. Which is fine. Bandleader Doug P. Walter’s (’08, in case you care) lyrics could only have been written by a big, articulate nerd with a broken heart, which is a mixed blessing. He writes some memorable (in a good way) lines, like when he describes an old flame as “no longer a conquest, a colony at best” on one of the better songs on “Robots and Roses,” “Body Inside A Dress.” Sometimes, though, Walters lets his book-learnin’ get the better of him and he lets out embarrassing little choruses like “Just like William Blake, I’m about to overflow/ And just like William Blake, I’ve got love for the hounds below.”
More good news: Walters knows how to write a catchy tune. But he makes some big mistakes characteristic of precocious songwriters on their first album. His first problem is that, with one exception, all the songs on “Robots and Roses” sound pretty much the same – mid-tempo, mid-length, standard verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure, melodramatic lyrics, stuttering beat. Sometimes an intro will suggest that a slowburner or a dance track is coming up, but it’s almost always a fake-out. Sometimes the song is enjoyable (“Breathing Fire” and “Gold For Its Weight,” along with the aforementioned “Dress”) sometimes it’s terminally boring (“Forget The Bees,” Career Woman,” and “No Honor Among Thieves”). It’s hard to say why some songs are catchy and some are dull given how similar they all are (though for the record, I think they’re at their best when they manage to groove just a little bit).
“Robots and Roses” also suffers because the members of Red Wire Black Wire have no idea how to arrange their songs. Vintage synthesizers can be a great tool (see the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record for a master class), but they work best when they’re used to add texture or for simple leads. Instead RWBW slathers keyboard flourishes all over the front of their mix, often throwing in two or three different melodies per track and ruining what could otherwise be simple, straightforwardly memorable songs. These synths aren’t particularly well programmed, either, so they add an element of throwback-y kitsch that doesn’t jibe with the record’s fairly serious tone.
There’s one big exception. On the title track, the band members ditch their drums and guitars, singing choir-like over a cinematic background of glacial synth chords and electronic whirs. It’s the high point of the album, though it’s not clear if it’s because the track is inherently interesting (I’m pretty confident it is), or because it’s a welcome break in the monotony.