In a harsh review of We Are Scientists’ 2010 record Barbara, Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen wrote that the album “could’ve been made by a computer with a specific coding procedure: bass riffs align themselves into right angles, sharp synth lines blare, hi-hats sizzle, hooks dissolve on contact and 2004 never ends.” It’s a startling condemnation of the sort of music that Britain’s New Musical Express magazine gobbled up post-Is This It?: The pop sensibilities of new wave meets the self-deprecation of Weezer accentuated with disco rhythms guaranteed to get even the whitest kids out onto the dancefloor. But just because you can describe a band’s music using a bunch of vague signifiers (none vaguer than the sickeningly nondescript term “angular guitar music”) doesn’t mean that it’s any less vital, does it?
Cut to Emerson Suites at Ithaca College on Saturday night. We Are Scientists take the stage and the typically embarrassing (but obviously fun) events take place in the audience: giddy pogoing, cuddly moshing and, of course, stage diving. These are humble surroundings for a band whose cult following in the UK dwarfs their sizable following here; Emerson Suites is housing approximately 400 attendees (for comparison’s sake, while opening for Muse at Wembley Stadium in 2010, they played for an audience close to 90,000). Lead singer Keith Murray sports a graying hairdo that, combined with a rather defined jawline, recalled unfunny funnyman Jay Leno. He and bassist Chris Cain break up the night’s setlist with their own brand of pun-based comedy that, while initially charming, eventually elicited shouts of “just play some f**king music” from the surprisingly sober audience (perhaps I’m too used to the “blackout or get out” crowds that regularly infiltrate Barton on the regular).
As for the music in question, one cannot fault its execution. Murray and Cain are consummate professionals, not even letting broken microphone stands, speaker-mounting photographers (our own Ryan Landvater) or even a particularly talented, laser-nunchuk-wielding fan get in the way of a rock steady performance. Drummer Andy Burrows, formerly of British tabloid-makers Razorlight, is the group’s locomotive, propelling the choruses of songs like “Rules Don’t Stop Me” and “The Scene is Dead” to satisfying climaxes.
Still, something feels missing from the evening’s proceedings. Sitting down with the guys before the show, I almost got the feeling that the band was too used to this whole process: load-in, soundcheck, meet with the local press, forever and ever, amen. On stage, the songs were ripped through more than competently, but I would have traded that competence for a little more — and I apologize for the impreciseness of such an accusation — vitality. Certain songs were more identifiable by their associated banter or audience action than their actual content. You occasionally got the feeling that if they had snuck in a Franz Ferdinand or Killers cover, you would have hardly noticed.
Songwriting gripes aside, you never get the feeling that the band was ever really trying to win the audience over. Onstage, Murray rocked and swayed tastefully to each song, but rarely do you ever get the sense that he is losing his shit. Even at the concert’s denouement, as the group incited the audience to join them onstage during the syrupy sweet “After Hours,” the entire operation felt very under control. Granted, these guys have been doing this for more than a decade; they’ve likely got the whole show-playing thing down to a (wait for it) science. Regardless, it’s a mildly disappointing performance that is compounded by the overall sameness of the whole set. So, what does it mean to sound like 2004 in 2012? I’m not quite sure, but even if they offer a tried-and-true sound, they ought to offer a little more than a tried-and-true effort.