We are rightfully suspicious of self-proclaimed “Artists” who count music among one of their many pursuits, because their priorities are all screwed up. For those about to rock, we salute you; for those about to create a video installation, fuck off. And so there is a deep quandary when it comes to NewVillager, a Brooklyn/San Francisco artist collective (actually just two people, Ben Bromley and Ross Simonini) that sketches, sculpts, writes mythologies and makes collages. The trouble lies with the excellent self-titled album they made when they weren’t prancing around in Matthew Barney-inspired videos and creating pop-art installations at avant-garde gallery spaces.
The 10 songs on NewVillager are an unpretentious celebration of the last 30 years of pop and R&B, exhibiting an intimate knowledge of Top 40 hits and filtering them through white-boy falsetto vocals, outsized echo-chamber beats (similar to the spaced-out texture achieved by Glasser on last year’s Ring) and the kind of multi-tracked, near-tribal vocals favored by Peter Gabriel and TV On the Radio. If there is any irony in the slow-jamming “Black Rain,” with its Color Me Badd (or, for that matter, Lonely Island) whispered verses, it’s buried too deep for anyone to bother giggling. Despite the many artistic endeavors of Simonini and Bromley, NewVillager doesn’t suffer from a lack of focus; if anything, it’s narrowly projected, with an arsenal of burbling keyboards and synth-strings.
Yet two tracks stand out for their undeniable pop-hit appeal: “Rich Doors,” whose ever-shifting stomp makes it sound like the longest R&B breakdown ever, and “Lighthouse,” which is insistent and joyous — Antony and the Johnsons on Prozac. Songs such as these, filled with known pleasures and palpable energy, make the fact that NewVillager comes complete with some concocted mythology about a character called the Black Crow Boy a burden to the album rather than an added dimension. In fact, we’d rather forget we mentioned it at all.