Upon first glance at Naked Giants‘ New West Records debut album, Sluff, those who pick the album up might assume that they’re staring into a time warp. The awkward poses that the three-piece band’s members strike combined with their clothing and the garish color scheme as well as the decor in the image look like something which might have originated in the Eighties. Conversely, the melange of sounds and inspirations which have been combined in the first minute and a half of the album’s opening cut, “Dead/Alien,” (a bit of “Psycho Killer”-era Talking Heads, a bit of the clunky, danceable synth stomp of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” a bit of the frenetic, rural, post-punk weirdness which oozed out in the Eighties and Nineties) betray both a sense of history and intelligence seldom found in any region of the current pop diaspora.
It’s weird and, at least initially, listeners may feel a little unclear regarding what to do with the swarm of it all when it comes at them – but the beauty of how Sluff surges forth is that it will totally overtake listeners and force them into the band’s frame. Right off the bat, the guitars supplied by Grant Mullen veer back and forth between having a surly and danceable disposition, while Gianni Aiello and Henry LaVallee’s rhythm section just bounces jubilantly and ceaselessly along. The result is hypnotic as long as a listener is willing to go limp and go along with it; otherwise they’ll just get battered into a state of intoxicated submission.
The sort of bouncy/danceable and fun rhythm endures as “Dead/Alien” gives way to “We’re Alone” and the angry but effervescent anthem-about-nothing which is “Everybody Thinks They Know But No One Really Knows” before the band finally sinks back into “TV,” which decelerates a bit and illustrates that sometimes band mates just sit around together because they can’t afford to do anything else. At the moments when one song ends and the next begins, the “fun” quotient listeners feel never lowers, and listeners will find that while there’s no question some of the sounds and effects which blurt through the mix can be very jarring, they still function so well within each arrangement that there’s little doubt each was intentional. That confidence works brilliantly.
While it’s hard to say that Sluff‘s B-side doesn’t back slide a bit from the ground made by the A- (after “Slide,” the album’s title track, “Goldfish I,” “Goldfish II” and “Dat Boi” all suffer from being just a little too half-formed and underdone for their own good), it would be impossible to say that the side is completely without its charms or could have been easily edited down to an EP in length. Particular standouts like “Easy Eating” and “Shredded Again” embody two polar extremes within Naked Giants’ sound as they touch on a solid street punk tip and an acoustic indie oddball, respectively.
First, “Easy Eating” just aims to please (and succeeds) as it mines a rock-punk angle for grins and cheers (those who were won by the album’s A-side will approve), but then “Shredded Again” spontaneously ditches all of what listeners expect and reach down deep into for perceived Outback weirdness to close out the side. There, some pretty beautiful acoustic strumming covers for the fact that Gianni Aiello is making up the song’s lyrics as he goes along (check out lines like “I sent my dead mother an email” – and notice that Aiello sounds like he might crack up laughing at any second) and furthered by the fact that the song’s arrangement mutates unexpectedly to include some weird Sgt. Pepper-esque strings and horns for a moment.
Simply said, while it sounds like the band is just throwing everything it has at the wall to see what might stick, it’s engaging because it plays like a perfect punctuation mark for an album which takes a genuine shot at being lighthearted and smarmy at the same time and not only succeeds but makes the exercise accessible.
Now, accounting for all of the praise above does not mean Sluff is a flawless effort, nor could one honestly say that nothing about this album could be improved – but it is a strong and worthwhile start which can win listeners. Sluff also gives something of a blueprint for other plans and ideas that the band could explore in the future, which feels incredibly promising. That aspect of Sluff – the great and exciting unknown – is what will have listeners coming back to the album, guaranteed.
(New West Records)