L.A.’s Film School is a band that formed amidst the garage and post-punk revival at the turn of the century, a period when Bloc Party, Interpol, Longwave, The Rapture, and The Strokes crafted decade-defining albums that paid homage to their forebears without belying the identity of the artists themselves. It was an exciting time to be sure, one that felt earned, as if enough time had lapsed that these styles could experience an evolution based on respect instead of redundancy. Sure, Joy Division’s influence on Interpol is without question, but Turn on the Bright Lights felt modern and owned enough to defy easy defamation. The same cannot be said for much of the work of Film School, who on Fission continues to trade in derivatives. Displacing the heart-on-the-sleeve affection for My Bloody Valentine and The Cure present on 2007’s Hideout, this new decade finds the band embracing peppier influences that recall Modern English, The Anniversary and Catherine Wheel, though to equally banal effect.
Considering the band, anchored by principal songwriter Greg Bertens, is almost a decade old, one begins to wonder if there’s a certain self-awareness missing in the creative process. Each of their records may sound different from the next, a good quality to aspire to in any medium, but the point is to evolve an aesthetic, not simply borrow from a new set of influences. If Kid A had been a dismal failure, at least it would’ve been a bold one, not a copy of OK Computer, or worse, a caricature of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, NEU! or the other electronic pioneers that influenced Thom Yorke during that period. Moreover, somewhere around Fission‘s mid-section, one also begins to wonder if the record was simply made for hipster-targeting auto marketers — the album works better as a series of carefree short passages than a serious set of indie rock songs written by a seasoned band that’s proven they’re capable of better work.
There are definitely bright spots on Fission, and it can’t possibly be said of Bertens and Co. that they have bad taste. If their undisguised devotion to the new wave and shoegaze icons of the late-70’s, 80’s and early-90’s is precisely why you’re endeared to them, the record will likely please you, if for no other reason than it contains new material. And, I’ll be the first to say there is no reason whatsoever to be critical of that motivation for consumption – welcome to the land of the, um, free. But, for every glimmer of originality – mostly present in “Heart Full of Pentagons”, “Direct”, and “Still Might” – there’s an army of mediocre melodies, shimmery guitar-rock redundancies, and forgettable attempts at Shields-ian glory. If you think there’s no way to touch shoegaze’s warm, woozy sound without inviting a snappy comparison to MBV, you’re wrong – fellow Californians Autolux modernized the genre brilliantly on their two LPs, Future Perfect and the recently released Transit Transit.
The first time I heard “11:11” from Film School’s eponymous album, I downloaded it immediately, placing the song amongst a select group of Sonic Youth, Bauhaus and Deerhunter tracks on a DJ mix assembled for a friend’s art show. Like so many written by the previously mentioned crop of post-punk revivalists, “11:11” had a familiar quality, but it also felt fresh. It’d be a stretch to suggest it had the gravitas of John and Paul re-interpreting the blues, sure, but the influences were welcome, nonetheless. On Fission, however, the band quite simply sounds uninspired. Perhaps the stakes were higher when they had to compete with the success of Interpol and Bloc Party – visceral competition can make for great songwriting (again, see John and Paul) – or, maybe they’ve gotten too comfortable with their talent and its time to tear up the script. Regardless, as a fellow fan of Film School’s life-changing influences, my hope is that Fission will ultimately be a small misstep, followed by a career of making records that are memorable before they’re reverent.