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Artist: Gang of Four

Album: Content

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Mar. 9, 2011


Gang of Four - "Never Pay for the Farm" (Content)


“Who am I when everyone is me?” That’s the question that Jon King asks in “Who Am I,” one of 10 new songs on Gang of Four’s first album of new material since Shrinkwrapped in 1995. Since then, a whole wave of Gang of Four acolytes have come and, for all intents and purposes, gone — Liars, The Rapture, Radio 4, Franz Ferdinand among them. So, “Who am I” is a fair question, though perhaps a half a decade tardy. When you’re a vastly influential, much-imitated band that has been out of the game for a while, what do you do to distinguish yourself from your imitators?

There are two options, really. One is to become more yourself than anyone else. The other is to become something entirely different.

Gang of Four has been mostly pursuing the first option since about 2004, when the four original members reconvened for a tour, with set lists leaning heavily on 1979’s Entertainment and 1981’s Solid Gold, and an energy level that was, frankly, ferocious. The mid-’00s were rife with reunion tours, but Gang of Four’s was one of the best. The band even rerecorded and repackaged its old material in 2005’s Return the Gift.

Content, too, contains a good swath of this approach, especially in its first half. “She Said,” up front, has much of the cutting menace of early Gang of Four, the razor wire guitar licks slicing through dub-echo’d bass and drums. “Never Pay for the Farm” has more than a whiff of the jerky alienation in “Natural’s Not In It.”

And yet, even where Gang of Four sounds most like its old self, it’s a thin copy. King and guitarist Andy Gill are the only two original members involved: Hugo Burnham, the drummer on Gang of Four’s classic first two albums, plus Songs of the Free, was unceremoniously dumped from the band in 2006 and replaced with session drummer Mark Heaney; Dave Allen left the band for the second time in 2008, and Thomas McNiece stepped in at bass. Gang of Four was really Gang of Two — and not for the first time. All the Gang of Four albums since Solid Gold have been primarily Gill/King projects, with bass and drum players paid by the hour and on their best behavior.

That’s a shame, because while Heaney, for instance, is a very good, subtle drummer, he doesn’t have the stature to challenge Gill and King in the way that Burnham could. Nor can McNiece (who has left almost no internet trail) upend whole songs the way that Allen could with furious, asynchronous basslines. Listen to “Guns and Butter” and you realize that the anarchy in Gang of Four came from the way all four members played their instruments. It was a musical fistfight, everyone’s ideas flying violently in all directions. The Gill + King + Whoever model is better behaved, but ultimately not as interesting.

The old Gang of Four also looked primarily outward. Their themes were economic inequality, alienation, and a rejection of consumerist, commercial society. The new Gang of Four is more self-absorbed, personal and hedonistic. Who could imagine Entertainment-era Gang of Four writing about girls (“You look good with no clothes on / I take photos on my phone” in “She Said”) or composing a song called “I Party All the Time”?

Most of Content sounds like Gang of Four as its own cover band, a slightly blander, slightly less dangerous version of the band we all expect. However, mid-album, a couple of songs are jarringly not like before — in one case successfully, in the other kind of embarrassing. “A Fruitfly in the Beehive” is spare and melodic, the sharp edges muted around a meditation on life’s meaning. It sounds nothing like Gang of Four’s best-known material, and yet is strangely compelling. “It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good,” by contrast, with its cringe-inducing Auto-Tuning, seems like a desperate bid for relevance.

In the end, neither approach — not the “just like before,” not the “new and different and still relevant” — really works on Content. This is not a bad album, and if it weren’t carrying the Gang of Four name, you might find it casually enjoyable. But “Who am I”? Not Gang of Four anymore.

By Jennifer Kelly

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