The notion that this fine emo band can rest comfortably in so many overlapping rock adjectival labels (math rock, punk rock, post punk Gang of 4dom) speaks volumes. The French Kicks possess more talent than most of their contemporaries; that they take basic post-punk song structure and infuse the occasional confession, swath of shoegazing or Who-like wallop on the snare makes us (and them) healthier and happier for those actions of homage.
Most of the band hails from Washington DC, but they were more in line with NYC’s Strokes/Walkmen/Natural History than the DC breeding ground of Dismemberment Plan or the talented Ted Leo by the time of the at-times unsteady first longplayer. One Time Bells suffers slightly from not always coherently absorbed or assimilated sources. (A harder-edged version is to be found in the band’s early singles and EPs, especially the superlative Young Lawyer. The menacing façade and growling intensity there better match the commensurate lyrical emptiness and amateurish production.) The songs on One Time Bells still rock, but the soulful “Close to Modern” is pastichey, and “1985” is unnecessarily cute. Other songs also sound labored: the tepid “Down Now,” the melodically challenged “When You Heard You.” The quartet stretches on the moody, despairing title track and uses the studio for nice subtle effects on “Sunday Night Is Fair.” To their vast credit, even if the songs resemble a greatest hits package of indie rock, each guitar break, each bridge comes alive with experimental toughness. What keeps the band tight and focused are a nervy desire to try different things (whether they become successes or failures) and the voice of drummer and primary songwriter Nick Stumpf. His vocal mannerisms are stretched and varied, and are more effective with each passing project.
The poppier Trial of the Century strands the other members of the band, relegating them to provide background vibes and retro new wave. “The Falls,” a song of expert musicianship, great dynamics and unusual harmonic centers, would fit in a Human League “Where Are They Now” documentary. The French Kicks have changed dramatically and not always for the better. As talented youth seeking definition, they call to mind the Coral. Bassist Jamie Krents, guitarists Matt Stinchcomb and Josh Wise and Stumpf are superior talents with superior visions. And, of course, they aren’t apparently in it for the money. From their early Jam-like smashings to their later toughened George Michaelisms, the French Kicks are handclapping their way across the musical universe. And they may even do it for free.