In 2003, Liz Phair horrified fans with her self-titled fourth album. The idea of a once indie queen forgoing her raw DIY sound for sugary, well-produced pop was shocking and disheartening for everyone that had been moved by her humble beginnings. Today, a move like that wouldn’t have been so weird. Liz Phair is still a pretty lame album, but had her career started a decade later, she would have dropped that album about a year ago, in a poptimist landscape more willing to accept crossing over.
Comparing Liz Phair’s career to New York/Denmark band Ex Cops is reductive in both timeframe and influence, but the concept of an extreme musical makeover lines up. Ex Cops’ debut record True Hallucinations was a promising collection of flavorful indie rock, akin to the Raveonettes’ mixture of sweet melodies, jangly guitars, and chronic fuzz. Pop was definitely in their DNA, but it was more in the vein of Jeff Lynne and Phil Spector. On the band’s follow up, the band takes it completely into modern mainstream pop, a move that still can make an indie rock fan wince, but one that no one should be condemned for outright. Unfortunately, Daggers falls short of achieving the sky high Top 40 it’s going for at nearly every turn.
One common misconception about an indie rock band making a pop record is that it’s the easy route – “selling out” as they call it. Contrary to that belief, that fact is…making pop music is hard! It’s much easier to make sloppy post punk and call that your style, than it is to craft pop singles. Pop music is regimented, precise and often takes a real keen production ear to make it really pop. Daggers has glimmers of that here and there, but it rarely sustains it for a full song.
In addition to the stylistic switchover, there’s a shift in vocal approach as well. On True Hallucinations, Brian Harding was the leading voice, with Amalie Bruun often giving a a soft duet vocal, or at most, a response to Harding’s call. On Daggers, the roles are reversed, which on leading single “Black Soap,” works extremely well. “Black Soap” is a well-crafted alt rock gem – every turn of the song sounds like a chorus, and Harding’s chill vocals gels nicely with Bruun’s newfound “singer voice.” The song however is an outlier of everything that follows. While “Black Soap” sounds a lot like 1995 Garbage, the rest of Daggers sounds like 2001 Garbage.
While Harding sounds totally in synch with Bruun on “Black Soap,” he spends the rest of the record sounding like one of those dudes that would pop up on Ace of Base songs. It hinders further in that most of the album’s Top 40 shots fall flat and awkward, so even when Harding stays in the background, Bruun still has a tough time selling it. The chorus of “Pretty Shitty,” which is sung “How could you be so shitty/to a girl so pretty?” sounds like an inside joke that they decided to go with anyway. “Wanna Be” is a run of the mill, overproduced ballad, that guest singer LP can’t save (and who would expect her to). “Teenagers” and “Daggers” are serviceable but still mostly hollow and “Modern World” is the worst offender on the record, sounding way closer to the A-Teens than ABBA.
It’s easy to forget what band you’re actually listening to on Daggers although there’s an occasional reminder that this was the group that made True Hallucinations last year. “Tragically Alright” features a vocal from Ariel Pink for a song that sounds like the dreamier side of the Dandy Warhols canon. Closer “Weird With You” also touches back on the band’s Jesus and Mary Chain leanings, but on an album this stuffed with Z100 fodder, it’s hard to know what audience this band is aiming for. A song like the Berlin-esque “White Noise” works well as a common ground between the band’s two worlds, but for the rest of the record, it’s too far on one end and not enough on the other. And given how weak Ex Cops are as a pop act, they really should have either reversed it, or just explored Bruun’s interest in black metal, as it likely would have yielded equally odd, but better results.