Culture

This New Government actually works

Review

BEIRUT: The Government formed in late 2004, but given the circumstances it was bound to be temporary. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the resignation of then-Premier Omar Karami, it swiftly re-branded itself The New Government. After the heady days and demonstrations of the so-called Beirut Spring, it hardened its coalitions and consolidated its ranks. Ever since, rumors have circulated that the members of The New Government who were kicked to the curb are quietly regrouping to form The Opposition. But as is so often the case, they haven't gotten their act together and nothing of substance has materialized yet.

While all this may sound like a cursory round-up of the last 18 months in Lebanese politics, it is, in fact, the story so far for a Beirut-based band that layers luscious pop onto aggressive punk and dreamy, ethereal sonic fuzz.

The Government began as an unruly, informal forum for indie rock, retro glam and post-punk experimentation. When the band members streamlined their six-piece line-up to four, they renamed themselves The New Government because, as they shrug the explanation on their blog: "There was no official government at the time, so it made sense."

About ten months ago, a two-song EP slipped out into public circulation on the newly minted independent label Mooz Records. Now, after another six months of recording and refining and perfecting new material live, The New Government is poised to release its first full-length album, which begins, tongue ever in cheek, with the lyrics: "I killed the prime minister / I killed a famous journalist / And the next one on my list / Was an aging communist."

The band stands now as a five-piece - singer, keyboardist and pianist Jeremie Regnier; his brother Timothee on guitars and backing vocals; drummer Nabil Saliba; former Soap Kills front-man Zeid Hamdan, also on guitars and vocals; and bassist Cherif Saad, who was formerly one the founding members of The Lombrix, a rock-inflected predecessor to Soap Kills.

Although The New Government is an entirely homegrown affair and the collective effort of young men who are in their mid- to late 20s and living in a mad little Mediterranean city well off the beaten paths of London and New York, the band's 10-track debut sounds remarkably accomplished. The production values are high, the songs tight, the lyrics and instrumentation crisp and clear.

For sure, The New Government skids along the twin legacies of The Beatles and The Beach Boys with a ragged edge copped from The Velvet Underground and The Kinks. The band stomps around the same playground now populated by innumerable latter-day power pop bands, most of them British, such as The Libertines, Baby Shambles, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys, all of whom were arguably made possible by the rather shocking, flash-in-the-pan success of The Strokes, followed by the likes of Interpol, The Killers, The Bravery and many, many more (the last being the most hated band in New York, from New York).

Still, criticism by comparison is cheap, and though The New Government has perfected the three- to four-minute pop song, their catchiness is deceptive. Spliced into certain tracks, one detects piano work approaching ragtime rhythm, heavy blasts of guitar, grounds laid down with noodling bass lines and weirdly retro new wave synthesizers, like relics from the early 1980s, expertly re-appropriated.

All decent pop songs operate on a precarious balance between indulgence and restraint. The straight, all-out, uniform shot of verse-chorus-verse (early Beatles) tends to work only if it is genius. Otherwise it fades fast, its cheerfulness morphing into the annoyance of having a sweet-tooth drilled.

The more interesting end of the pop spectrum breaks up the monotony of verse-chorus-verse, adding breaks that essentially make the listener nostalgic - within that space of three- to four-minutes - for a snatch of a song that's been lost but will ultimately be reprised.

This is what The New Government does best - orchestrating give-and-take breaks that satisfy as they deny. The band's predecessor here is none other than The Pixies, that once-great group from Boston whose back catalogue can never be exhausted because each of its songs can be cracked open like Russian dolls to expose two (sometimes three) inside.

To wit, the standout track on The New Government's new album is the second, entitled "Fat Horse." It begins with drums, introduces a boppy bass line, and is followed by call-and-response guitars. Then the breaks begin - an isolated wash of distant, softly twinkling piano that repeats every time the rhythm shifts with a cascade of power chords; a full pause here and there; a long, jazzy Syd Barrett-style interlude; and a drum bridge that lasts twice as long as you expect it to.

Eventually the song doubles back to the beginning. On vocals, Regnier careens from dada non sequitur to what would otherwise be the chorus, never repeated exactly. First: "I'd like to know where I can take her / Would you please let me take her?" Then: "Taking you down to the uptown world / I can see it / I can feel it." Suddenly, lyrically, you're in the middle of either an adolescent Manhattan prep-school fantasy or a spare yet dazzling retelling of the Persephone myth, the daughter of Zeus tricked into the underworld with pomegranate seeds and whose name, perhaps not by chance, translates from Greek as "she who destroys sound."

That the very structure of The New Government's songs can be parsed and mapped suggests not pretension but a promising level of sophistication that underpins the entire enterprise.

In both rhythmic and lyrical urgency, The New Government definitely captures a certain generational anxiety with acute local appeal - the lines about slain prime ministers, journalists and communists; the references to authoritarian rule; the raucous rip-off of The Bee Gees "Stayin' Alive" that begins with a lazy reggae beat but then kicks it up - twice - to split the seams of the the 1977 disco hit single with the explosive line "What the f*** is going on?" and an orgiastic skat.

When the band performed that song at The Gallery, a club on Monnot Street, in the spring of 2005, after a handful of random bombings around Beirut, a few political assassinations and lots of noise about hit lists and security concerns, the response from the band's loyal core following was euphoric. It was a perfect gesture of giving voice.

Still, the band isn't inextricable tethered to its context. Regnier has a stage presence, and a penchant for sharp tailoring and toy soldier gear, that is commanding and polished enough to beg comparisons to Morrissey in a happy mood, itself a formula for success. The other Regnier and drummer Saliba both have side projects in other bands, Haussman Tree and White Trash Bubble Gum, respectively. Hamdan is, of course, a partner in the band's label. In other words, there are lots of fishing lines cast elsewhere. Eventually something or someone will catch, and the band will break out bigger than Beirut. New York may be a tough nut to crack, but apparently, The New Government already has a clutch of fans in London.

 

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