Barcelona, Zero One Infinity (March)

Barcelona has already garnered great praise in this webzine. Last year’s simon BASIC is one of our favorites. Surely there’s a large audience out there waiting to discover this band. God knows, there’s enough of us who came of age in the 1980s and now spend our work time and home time connected to virtual space. When Barcelona quietly blipped onto the scene last year, they seemed preordained as our spokesmen.

Barcelona’s 80s nostalgia was readily apparent on simon BASIC, but it seemed incidental. More important were the pop songs which were clean, unassuming tales of Gen X heartbreak and angst. Nonetheless, reviews couldn’t say enough about the group’s retro sound. Like the best bands, Barcelona’s strength has always been in its songs. What made Barcelona’s debut so great was its combination of nostalgic sounds with nostalgic themes. The underlying (excuse me) tenderness of songs like “Indian Names” and “Why do you Have so Much Fun Without Me?” made them touch a nerve in indie rock fans who wanted something retro but genuine. The geekiness of their songs belied a genuine emotional content. Where Barcelona have bought into their hype and pushed themselves to make retro-futuristic music, they miss their mark. Luckily the band knows their strengths.

The opening track from their new album, Zero One Infinity, “Studio Hair Gel,” has that initial touch of hokey-ness. It’s all in the synth sounds which lead off the song. They have that Future Bible Heroes timbre to them. It’s a sound that’s supposed to sound retro but instead reminds one of being reminded of the 80s. By the second verse, Jen is name dropping 80s icon Robert Smith, reminding us that we’re supposed to be reminded of the 80s. The same goes for the next two songs: “Bugs” and “Paging System Operator.” Both trade vapid if sometimes-clever lyrics and retro sounds for emotional content. Where the computer nerd of simon BASIC was the human on the other end of the microphone, the nerd of “Bugs” feels like a character. “Paging System Operator,” though a better song, makes the same mistakes and the line “I saw your name on a cracker screen / waiting for EA Winter Games to load” doesn’t make up for the hollow feel of the song. The opening three tracks just aren’t good songs. Lyrics can be empty and meaningless in a song whose emotional dynamic is in its music, but this just isn’t there. And the songs just aren’t a lot of fun.

Thankfully, Barcelona’s opening salvo of Hey! Remember the Eighties? ends with the fourth song, “Electronic Company” whose steady bass groove sounds like the actual Talking Heads, not a memory of them. The songcraft elevates the familiar lyrical theme of I-have-no-friends-except-my-computer from mocked nostalgia to contemporary pop. Likewise so does “Replicant” whose music is just plain groovy. [astute readers will remember I praised Barcelona last year for having no replicants in their songs.] It’s the most danceable and fun thing here. Its keyboards are pure Tubeway Army in sound but the bass and drums keep the song in high gear unlike TA’s morbid sci-fi.

The album continues its uphill route with touchstones like “Obsoletion” and “Haunted By The Ghost of Patty” that prove Barcelona are their own band despite the constant 80s comparisons. The Casios and clean guitars ring out with confidence. Christian Scianiello’s drums are sharp and tasteful. “Obsoletion”‘s I-have-no-friends-except-my-computer lyrics and downright spooky keyboards are darker than ever before and lend a gravity to Barcelona’s pop. “Haunted by the Ghost of Patty”‘s keyboards propel it through its young adult heartbreak. With many others here, the song leaves behind the nerd posture for late-twenties ennui and angst.

Barcelona’s best moments are when they are able to shake the 80s albatross and just have fun making music with guitars, drums and old keyboards. “Have You Forgotten the Bomb?” blares out a quickly strummed clean guitar that would vault listeners back to the Wedding Present if it weren’t for its uncanny resemblance to Unrest’s Mark Robinson’s style. Its rhythmic bass line keeps the foot tapping and the keyboard bleeps keep it poised in coolness. “I Have the Password to Your Shell Account” with it’s Beach Boys-ish background vocals (“ba-ba-ba-bah”) shows off a group free to reference whatever good pop music they want in their quest to make their own great pop songs.

The album’s ominous start is forgotten by the end of Zero One Infinity. Barcelona have grown a little since we last heard them but they’re still in fine form. Perhaps the first three songs were such an immediate let-down because the first three on simon BASIC were so immediately great. It hardly matters when there is such a trove of good ole Casio blips and bleeps and fun indie rock waiting on the other side.