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Preoccupations too concerned with indie cred

| Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preoccupations indie cred webANDREA SAVAGE | The Observer

Seldom does a band have the opportunity to release two self-titled records over the course of their career. For the Canadian post-punk outfit Preoccupations, a name change provided the opening. Formerly known as Viet Cong, the band decided to opt for a new moniker just last year — and only one year after first capturing the attention of music critics with the release of their excellent 2014 EP “Cassette.”

It was a well-intentioned decision, but one with a clear ulterior motive; certain sectors of the public found the name offensive, so much that occasionally it prevented the band from being able to play at music venues with strict expression guidelines. Perhaps to change was the compassionate option, yet altering a band’s identity to appease others and gain marketability brownie points is, strictly speaking, just about the least “punk” thing one could do. Indeed, the group’s rather bland new name, Preoccupations, signals just that: a concern for palatability rather than subversive panache.

I wouldn’t have thought twice about the change if the band had retained its signature style: effortless craft and aggressive hyperactivity. On their debut LP — the self-titled “Viet Cong” — the group navigates a dark and bellicose environment with monolithic instrumentation and dynamic songwriting, doing so with unusual ease for trained musicians working within a mostly unfamiliar genre. Dabbling with confidence in noise and distortion while remaining catchy and surprisingly accessible, it stands as one of the most accomplished records of 2015 without having sacrificed its sense of punk.

But instead of perfecting their craft or striving for even greater originality, their self-titled record as Preoccupations is quite toned-down in comparison to their previous efforts — not in tone, but in ambition. This record is almost shockingly comfortable reproducing familiar post-punk motifs and not developing them with much — if any — inspired creativity. There is certainly nothing here that we have never heard before. Indeed, there are moments in which the aesthetic is so jarringly archetypal, as on lead single “Anxiety,” that songs begin to feel obvious in an almost patronizing way.

To be fair, however, the band is made up of objectively skilled musicians. The music itself is seamlessly assembled and skillfully balances chilly vocals with warm, rusty guitars. Preoccupations successfully reapplies the industrial production of Viet Cong to evoke the wintry urban landscapes familiar to the group. There are no egregious faults to the album, in other words. Overall, it is certainly a pleasurable listen.

The problem is the record’s overwhelming lack of tension. However much tension there is feels artificial, and simply giving songs names like “Anxiety,” “Degraded” and “Fever” does little to fool anyone. Conversely, it is no coincidence that tracks that play with ominous riffs and textures — as the band does on “Zodiac” and to a lesser extent on the short-lived “Forbidden” — fare much better than those that opt for numb comfort. Perhaps the album is fairly enjoyable, then, but it is certainly not very exciting. Not nearly as exciting as “Viet Cong,” at least.

From a commercial standpoint, such a lukewarm option to crafting a record has clear benefits: a safeguard against turning out a total critical flop, and a virtual guarantee that most fans will at least passively appreciate — and most likely purchase — the record. But passive appreciation equals a forgettable album in the long-term. Viet Cong will be remembered for distilling post-punk into an innovative product still capable of garnering mass appeal. But what will Preoccupations be remembered for? Being another indie band?

RATING: 3/5 Shamrocks

Label: Jagjaguwar

Favorite Track: “Zodiac”

If you like: Girl Band, Savages

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