Not that I’d call it a silver lining, but one real-time positive I see coming out of this writers’ strike — at least for television — is that we’re reminded that there are still wizards behind those curtains, that television is a product, manufactured by a business. An old one, too, with what are now well-codified ways of distributing and presenting and financing its entertainments — to say nothing of the strict and well-known tropes of its content.
Take sit-coms. We’re reminded now that somebody at some meeting said, “Hey, I know something that will make people laugh: a three-act half-hour show about a dysfunctional family.” And at some point, that show was a huge hit. Soon somebody ripped the dysfunctional-family formula, made some cosmetic changes, and then that dysfunctional-family show became another huge hit. It happened again and again and again, and the more “dysfunctional family” became synonymous with “entertaining sit-com,” the more difficult it was for both television watcher and television producer to imagine “entertaining sit-com” without “dysfunctional family.” The DF sit-com became normalized; non-DF sit-coms were and are dismissed as unentertaining. Which is to say that successful non-DF sit-coms, like Seinfeld and The Office, are flukes. But then there’s YouTube, which is neither DF nor sit-com but is immensely entertaining and successful. At this very moment, YouTube is dismissing at rapid clip these institutionalized notions of how and what people want from their entertainments.
What does any of this has to do with Black Dice? Well, if pop music could ever break free from its own version of the dysfunctional-family formula, there are those of us who believe that this Brooklyn trio would be the biggest band in the world. For the last decade, particularly the second half of it, Eric Copeland, Bjorn Copeland, and Aaron Warren have produced some of the most immediate, satisfying, and poppy songs I’ve heard. But because they don’t enter fully into the expectations of trad pop music (three-minute singles, steady 4/4 drumbeats, guitar/bass/drums line-up, singers singing words, Western notions of tuning), because their songs are born of different expectations and structures, Eno-like, as if it were pop music from a different planet, you’re not going to hear Black Dice on commercial radio. Indeed, you’ll rarely hear people call what Black Dice do “songs.” Some might not even consider them musicians. The polite hipster will incorrectly call Black Dice a noise band — anti-musical rebels, anti-structural nihilists.
Load Blown (Paw Tracks), their newest album, offers 10 densely rhythmic, synthesizer-centric songs that seem to touch on every genre while never committing to any. Back in early-’90s Providence, Black Dice were an experimental hardcore-punk act, though you don’t really hear that sort of antagonism in their music anymore. Or maybe it’s just implicit in their composition and choice of instruments: fractured polyrhythms, warbling electronics, fuzzy drum machines, serrated low-end. Like radio-ready singles, these newer songs have a focused energy, an urge to please that’s unlike some of the band’s early epic-length psychedelic explorations. You get the feeling that Black Dice thought of them as singles, too, since most of them were recorded and released previously as vinyl 12-inches. Somewhere far away, they would have Justin Timberlake’s audience. The bubbling synth figures and the throbbing fuzz in “Toka Toka” have a strut and swagger and sexual ferocity that recalls JT’s “Rock Your Body.” And “Kokomo,” this album’s answer to JT’s “My Love,” boasts the same Technicolor lovelorn sensibility, and the same clattering synth double time.
Granted, one beat in “Kokomo” sounds like a squeaky office chair tilting back and forth, and a woozier one reminds me of the sound of a jumping video-game character. In that regard, Black Dice can seem nonsensical. But then the wallops of bass come, the song grows supporting rhythms, and suddenly the squiggles and static coalesce into what can only be a pop song. Maybe it’s no coincidence that much of Bjorn Copeland’s visual art plays strict industrial design off freewheeling psychedelia, inviting the same kind of scavenger hunt you encounter when trying to find the folk-pop song buried behind the retro-futuristic bustle in “Scavenger.”
Load Blown borrows more readily from traditional pop sounds than any other Black Dice disc. (They’ve released four full-lengths since 2002.) I hear Motown and Afropop and Paul Simon in “Scavenger,” one of the few songs to feature vocals and something that sounds like a guitar. I hear reggae dub in “Bananas,” and in the tight rolls of “Manoman” I hear vocal hiccups and more video games. The chords to “Toka Toka” even hint at a recognizable chord progression — a standard and well-worn turn-around that dates back to the big-band era. Yet here Black Dice leave their mark on the progression: it is indisputably theirs, and theirs only.