With all the intense focus on glo-fi/chillwave these days, more normal-sounding dance records can skate under the radar with relative ease if you’re not paying attention. And dance rock, the genre upon which guitars hit hard amidst the beats, well that’s been as good as dead in the last couple years. This is why once highly prolific bands such as Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand find themselves in a bit of a struggle to survive in their current state. Evolve or die is the mantra, and that tends to go for dance rock bands both popular and unpopular. In keeping a close eye on the trends, many record labels are signing bands according to what’s hot, which is why glo-fi continues to make the (chill)waves it does. Not calling anything a mistake, but now and then you do get the occasional band making their debut while playing up trends that have already passed. The progressive dance label Warp signed the duo known as The Hundred in the Hands and is putting out their self-titled debut record this week, but one listen and you’ll get a firm grasp on a the hot sounds of 2005. Now it stands to argue that judging music purely based on the public zeitgeist is foolish, because you never know when some band will turn in a brilliant record using an outdated sound. Hell, if there’s a rap-rock record that comes out in the next couple months that’s incredibly smart and well put together, the general public would be idiots to not give it the proper attention. So let’s not judge The Hundred in the Hands based on what genre they’re choosing to exploit, but rather the content and composition of their songs.
Having hammered that point home, it’s a shame that The Hundred in the Hands don’t have something stronger to offer for a debut album. These two first attracted my attention a few months back when I caught their live set as they were opening for another band. It was such a strong show and such fun that they pretty much blew all the other bands on the bill that night out of the water. As a direct result, I picked up a copy of their “This Desert” EP and continued to be captivated by their somewhat quirky take on what would normally be a standard dance rock album. The issue is that the band apparently made the conscious choice to avoid that sound in order to move in a bit more of a mainstream and “traditional” direction. The sonic gap between what appears on that EP and this self-titled full length isn’t as big as you might think, but when you’re working in a world of stale ideas, any unique spin you can put on your music is an advantage. This is why the squeaky clean production on “The Hundred in the Hands” turns out to be a very bad thing, along with the easy melodies that occasionally feel like you’ve heard them before. As disappointing as that might be, the band still does well for itself on a few levels. First is simply Eleanore Everdell, who is simply amazing on virtually everything she puts her voice to. Those are some seriously strong pipes, both incredible in their range and depth of emotion. When she gets all bedroom eyes on “Lovesick (Once Again)”, it turns into one of the most beautiful and intense moments on the record. “This Day Is Made” is haunting and immensely gripping thanks pretty much entirely to her singing. It doesn’t always work out though, and a song like “Gold Blood”, which is heavy on the rock angle and ups the BPMs just a bit turns Everdell into a Karen O-like figure. Unfortunately, she’s no Karen O, and the track makes that all too clear. Instead of a wild child she’s best in the character of an ice queen, freezing you out with talk of empty houses and wasted time. Jason Friedman’s role as guitarist and general foil works just fine, though he does very little to distinguish himself on the record. Everdell’s synths are generally the more dominant instrument, and the mixed use of drum machines and live drums doesn’t seem to make much of a difference except to pile more polish on top of what’s already there.
Thankfully “The Hundred in the Hands” doesn’t fall prey to every dance rock cliche there is. There are moments, glimmers if you will, of a potentially great band amid the blatant attempts to generate hook-filled choruses that will reach more ears and rise them above many of their indie bretheren. Songs like the opening “Young Aren’t Young” and “Pigeons” stand out for their ability to maneuver around the simplest melodies and try for something greater. There’s potential here, as there was potential on the “This Desert” EP, just not nearly so much of it. When faced with two paths to travel down, The Hundred in the Hands chose the easier walk. They’re now paying for it by being tagged with the “just another band like dozens we’ve heard before” label. It’s a shame too, because Warp pretty much only signs “above average” bands, which this duo seemed to be based on my brief history with them through a live show and an EP. Hopefully this debut record does well enough for them that they’re able to hold onto their label for another one. That will truly be the test of how ready they are to play in the big leagues of indie. They don’t need to be glo-fi to make waves in dance music, they just need to be great. Right now, The Hundred in the Hands are only moderately good.