Now, the deconstructionist fan in me wants to applaud Bloc Party for balking at the accepted rock-bio formulæ, for ignoring the obvious public demands for some sort of arcane knowledge or tidbits of personal history—a revelation of the band’s secret identity and the source of their power, as it were. On the flip side of the proverbial coin, the scholarly critic in me wants to wring Bloc Party’s collective neck for failing to cite their source materials, subsequently forcing me do my own legwork to make comparisons as to who or what they sound like. What can I say? I’m a slacker at heart.
The obvious comparisons have already been made and agreed upon by the Executive Council of Pop/Rock Criticism (or so I’d like to believe), and the big names tend to be Gang of Four, Joy Division, the Cure, Sonic Youth, XTC, and Joshua Tree-era U2. Lots of distortion, brightly layered guitars, prominent percussion, danceable rhythms, light synth effects, and vocals that range from forceful shouts to whispering croons and droning hums—generally speaking: poppy British guitar-rock with a dash of angular post-punk.
But you know all that already… at least, you should know all that, unless you took a strict vow of auditory asceticism at the turn of the century. To fill in the gaps for the unfamiliar few, Bloc Party is a quartet of British thirty-somethings from East London and Essex. Vocalist/guitarist Kele Okereke, guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes, and drummer Matt Tong have been performing together in some form or fashion since 2002, and they released their self-titled Bloc Party EP in May of naught-four. While Silent Alarm, their 2005 debut full-length, was a smash-hit in the UK (#3 on the UK Charts and NME's Album of the Year), it made but a modest splash in the United States (#114 on the Billboard Charts), notwithstanding widespread underground support, a remix album featuring work by Nick Zinner, Mogwai, M83, and DFA 1979, and near-constant soundtrack gigs with popular television shows like “Entourage,” “The O.C.,” and “CSI: NY.”
My initial churlishness and gee-whiz trivia aside, Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City is a well-made follow-up to Silent Alarm, even if it does not advance too far beyond the band’s stable of sharp riffs, subdued yet sonorous vocals, and discotheque beats. Okereke still affects an airy falsetto that jumps from reticent vulnerability to a vocal blast of self-assured arrogance, and his ringingly Edge-like chords still co-mingle with and diverge from Lissack’s own. Fully recovered from a collapsed lung, Tong adheres to the robotic perfection of a drum machine, and Moakes’s rumbling bass lines keep the toes tapping and the heads bobbing.
Thematically, A Weekend in the City has been described as a personal concept album of sorts, a compilation of diary-esque anecdotes drawn from Okereke’s experiences as a young adult living in London. “I’m trying to be heroic / in an age of modernity,” sings Okereke in opening track “Song for Clay (Disappear Here),” “I’m trying to be heroic / it’s all around me, history sings.” It’s quite the loaded opener, complete with references to childhood Catholicism and call-outs to the hollow, image-oriented faith of local scenesters.
Sticking with the religious metaphors, the buzzsaw riffs and reverberating vocals of “Hunting for Witches” question the Anglo-Saxon xenophobia that has escalated since the advent of the War on Terror. “Waiting for the 7:18” dials it back for retrospective, in-transit verses based on twinkling bells and droning synth before breaking out into a peppy rush of percussion and delayed riffs for the chorus. Next up, current UK single “The Prayer” pounds forward with a pulsing, crunk-ish beat and khoomei-esque drones, offering an if-only supplication for “grace and dancing feet / and the power to impress.”
“Uniform” is an examination of self-destructive teenaged escapism—irony, alcohol, dancehall scuffles, and the insatiable desire to champion a worthy cause—while “On” weighs the appeal of recreational insufflation of a certain albino substance, the artificial sense of calm and power provided by rolled-up banknotes and a casual line or two.
The lilting vocals and hard-rock riffs of “Where is Home?” approach Okereke’s childhood as the Catholic son of Nigerian immigrants, tackling head-on his feelings of foreignness and seething anger at a national mindset that refuses to admit him as an equal. “Kreuzberg” provides your token bitter love-meets-lust song, with Okereke coming to terms with his jaded experiences while on holiday in East Berlin. Stateside single “I Still Remember” rings and riffs around an unspoken infatuation between two schoolmates, an intriguing number that’s drawn no small amount of “is he/isn’t he” speculation from rags like The Observer.
“Sunday” and “SRXT” round out the US version of A Weekend in the City, the former thriving on shimmering guitar chords and pounded skins over ruminations on a dysfunctional relationship, the latter relying on light drums and ringing arpeggios to address thoughts of suicide:
“If you want to know what makes me sad / well, it’s hope, the endurance of faith / a battle that lasts a lifetime / a fight that never ends.”
Well, then. I admit that I went into this album with expectations to hate it, to find evidence of an overwhelming rockstar ego that cries out to be belittled. What I found was a boy struggling to become a man, and a band trying its damnedest to shrug off the mewling pettiness and confusions of adolescence in order to brace itself for the slings and arrows of adult life. It may not strike the same chord with everyone, but I have to admit that there is a resonance in A Weekend in the City for which I was remarkably unprepared. Nicely done.
Audio Reviews (February 4th, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, bloc party, a weekend in the city, vice records