The French Kicks are from New York City, have scruffy-but-chic looks, and play a neo-art-rockish sort of pop. This means that when the band’s first full-length recording comes out in a few months we should all prepare for comparisons with the Strokes, as well as lengthy editorials on the “New New York Sound.”
When grunge gurgled up into the mainstream, it obviously had origins in metal, punk, and the Melvins. As the ’90s approached, close listeners developed a hankering for songs that built up and then pummeled you, possibly in reaction to ’80s hair bands with their 2.5-minute songs and the super-quirky keyboard shtick. But this New New York Sound (let’s save space and just call it Shirley) is harder to pinpoint. Its style, though, is easy to explain, kind of an “accidental hipster” look, with loose cords, white leather belts, tight T-shirt, Levi’s jacket. Add one member with a full beard and, congratulations, you are sooo Shirley!
So what is this Shirley thing that we can all look forward to knockoff bands regurgitating? Its guitars tuned to odd keys, layered instrumentation, the occasional organ and downright la-di-da pop lyrics and harmonies. The fascinating thing is where this sound might have come from — most people compare the French Kicks to Television, if only for its discordant guitar work. But ask a bandmember about Television and most will unequivocally say that they aren’t really familiar with those late-’70s New York noodlers. Other critics point to Big Star, the band that everyone points to, but drummer and vocalist Nick Stumpf has an answer for that one too: “I hate Big Star.”
All this sound-defining and scene-placing doesn’t seem to interest the members of French Kicks at all, who for the most part keep to themselves. As a matter of fact, come May they plan on moving out of New York, defying anyone to hang that Shirley banner ’round their necks. Part of their insularity may come from the fact that several members met at Oberlin College in Ohio, a private liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere. That isolation, on top of a stellar music program, makes the college a good incubator for interesting musicians. After graduation, though, the East Coast came calling.
“People sort of vaguely talk about the New York scene and people often, of course, mention the Strokes because they’ve blown up so much,” says Stumpf. “But as far as musical comparisons go, we don’t get that much. We listen to a whole wide range of things, and I think you can hear it, I hope you can hear it in the music.” Actually, the band does get comparisons to the Strokes, which is a shame, since it developed wholly independent of those other overnight wunderkinds. One reviewer observed that the French Kicks’ EP Young Lawyer sounds the way most people hoped the Strokes would — new and original, but a little weirder. Hearing the seemingly Verlaine-inspired metallic guitars meld with solid drumbeats and Jaggeresque vocals may not turn your ear, but then the band drops into a Beach Boys bridge and launches into a Cowsills harmony. Wow.
Since the band is still in its infancy, at times it can be too self-conscious; the musicians occasionally seem like they are trying too hard to be provocative or unique. They still need to develop a collective groove and quit thinking about their audience, although the band’s desire to give listeners something continually new to hear does work in its favor in some ways. The musicians took the time to layer many levels of sound atop one another. “That’s very much what it’s about,” says Stumpf. “We start with one really simple idea and spend a long time choosing really simple parts that stack up together well to make a track, and then on top of that we put a melody. I think you’ll hear more things each time you listen to it.”
Whatever the new sounds from New York are going to be pegged as — Shirley or Bob or Artpop — dare we allow ourselves to get excited about another rock trend? It seems a safe risk. These bands are taking aspects of the past and tweaking them into their own future. And unlike rap-metal, it’s something we just might dig.