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Album Review: Hey Champ – Star

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Indie pop’s a beautiful thing. There’s perhaps no finer line in modern music between credible hooks and derivative nonsense. Hey Champ’s not-so-much-forward-as-sideways-thinking debut, Star, happily toes that line.

Star takes plenty of cues from contemporaries like MGMT, Passion Pit, LCD Soundsystem, and even Dan Deacon’s tamer flourishes. Hey Champ has toured with Lupe Fiasco on the strength of its assorted dance remixes of some of those contemporaries, as well as its single “Cold Dust Girl”, which strategically appears on Star. Hey Champ makes dance music — really obvious, really synth-y, really poppy dance music. And to their credit, they’re really good at it.

Album opener “Shake” kicks off in the best way: with the loudest opening drumbeat of any comparable release this summer. Those opening three seconds by drummer Jon Marks’ rhythm could lead to anything, before guitarist Saam Hagshenas and keyboardist Pete Dougherty light the song on fire with an angular guitar line and a persistent dance-synth beat fit for any club. It’s a great way to start any album, which is why it’s a shame that a little band called Metro Station released a song called “Shake It”. And there – starting with Star‘s lead track – is really where Hey Champ runs into issues.

While Hey Champ’s lyrics lean more towards apocalyptic than bubblegum, the fact remains that “Shake” is a rock song about dancing. It wasn’t new and fresh when Metro Station wrote “Shake It” nor when the Time wrote “Shake!” nor when the Cars wrote “Shake It Up”, and the list goes on to Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”.

So much of Star is easy to listen to and undoubtedly great music to do ecstasy to while hooking up with Swedish girls in a French club. But it’s specifically the simplicity of that description, the album’s easy categorization, that diminishes its credibility. Hey Champ is fun, but other bands are just as fun, and still some other bands are fun and smart. It’s not so much a problem as it is a disappointment that Hey Champ fails to strive for more on Star.

The album’s lead single, “Cold Dust Girl”, features impeccable touches: multiple guitar and synth solos and even a slowly meandering final quarter before coming to a resolute and well-executed end in Hagshenas’s fading out guitar. Nonetheless, Hey Champ’s music, for all its hook-laced catch and all its moments of nuance, is transient.

That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable. The repetitively despondent lyrical refrain on “No Future” is as sonically upbeat as anything put out by Phoenix last summer. The first three minutes of album closer “Steampunk Camelot” might even be bang-worthy if headbangers ever listen to Hey Champ. The time-flying album midpoint “Neverest” and semi-satirical “So American” are closely shaved synthpop anthems slicked sheen with Hagshenas and company’s finest production and pop songwriting. (“So American” carries a lovely video-game beat throughout.) The only real question is whether or not that’s enough for you.

LCD Soundsystem routinely constructs (and deconstructs) electronic epics and routinely succeeds in pushing boundaries and genre conventions. MGMT desperately wanted to try and at least made an effort with Congratulations. Passion Pit captivated a generation of wannabe-alt teeny-boppers with a halfway decent album of synth-laden hooks.

Now that the band has gotten its first-album blues (or jitterbugs?) out of the way, it will be really interesting to see and hear where Hey Champ goes. The university circuit the trio is courting this fall will undoubtedly love them and for good reason! There’s little to no reason for Hey Champ not to kick ass as a live show, with music this hyperactive. Come next year, though, this band will have to rise above its influences or risk releasing a terrible follow-up.

Here’s hoping they don’t. For now, just enjoy Star for what it is – pitch-perfect pop that you can pop to.

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