Antifamily present themselves as a collective as much as a band, and their music conforms to everything a collective implies: politics at the forefront, varied voices, shambling through different styles. Their stew of electro and jagged guitars would have sounded spot-on in 1980, but their female foreign accents and oddball song structures are just as reminiscent of Stereolab in the 1990s and Slapp Happy in the 1970s. They’ve been at it for most of this decade, and this self-titled full length’s been out for a more than a year without a US release. But they’ve hit upon a formula that’s deserves wider attention.
Like those young leftists of the past, they’re confident about their alternative means of production. As each member lays down a track to the laptop, there’s no need to be overtly confrontational. The songs that come out aren’t typical verse-chorus-bridge-verse. The beats are mechanical, with cold and dinky chirps painted on top. But the guitars are loose and the vocals are passionate enough that it clanks along with a certain warmth. Lyrically, they don’t throw bricks: the ironies of injustice are far more interesting.
Even if you subtract the German accent of Anja Kirschner, one of the leads, it all adds up to something authentically Brechtian. There’s a bowler hat and fishnet version of Brecht that’s been a persistent and dubious influence in rock ever since it aspired to high art. His strongest creations, like “Alabama Song,” have an up-from-the-streets scrappiness that prefigures art-punk in its desire to challenge the status quo. Brecht wrote the “Alabama Song” lyric (“Show me the way to the next whisky bar”) directly in English, a language he barely grasped, about a German boho’s fixation with blues music. It emphasizes Berlin’s distance from Alabama. Ultimately, he placed the song in an opera, where it became a criticism of capitalism and American indulgence.
Members of Anitfamily also work across mediums. Kirschner made a short film that adapts Brecht’s Threepenny Opera to a future London half-submerged from a rise in sea levels. As with Brecht, fitting these ideas into a longer narrative can make them didactic. But the individual songs on Antifamily aren’t weighed down with argument. They’re self-contained grooves, fragments that document of how the collective looks at the world, rather than instructions on how you should look at the world. Slow dub upstrokes form the foundation of most tracks, which lends a jauntiness throughout, even to the bitter tone of some of the singing. Those reggae roots gets buried deep. As much as it informs the lopside lurch of “The Final,” it’s dominated by an electric piano working the same register as a cello, and the result feels like chamber music.
If this record is low budget, their high aspirations never let it sound cheap. There’s conviction here that takes full advantage of desktop production. An Antifamily offshoot with singer Melanie Gilligan, called Petit Mal, just released a single “Crisis in the Credit System.” Its tone, both bemused and grave, suggests they’ve honed their technique to take on current events at a moments notice. But it’s actually an accompaniment to a film (and criticism of derivatives banking) that she’s been working on for years. This crew has been doing their homework.