Remember Salem? The divisive Michigan trio arrived with in a cloud of sleazy mystique, survived the PR disaster of their Fader Fort performance, and released an album buoyed by a grip of thinkpieces. They’re basically forgotten at this point, but their music holds up if you’re in need of a quick fix of guilty frisson. The Montreal–Halifax duo Purity Ring are sort of going through the same paces of PR boom and bust that Salem did, but without anything particularly objectionable about them. They draw on some of the same Southern hip-hop production conventions Salem helped introduce into the indie vocabulary, but all the space and grit have been vacuumed out, the better for singer Megan James’s e.e. cummings-cum-Postal Service lyrics. Shrines is full of uniformly saccharine, moderately hooky music, and the heaps of press coverage the duo has received thus far has basically written itself. But replace their up-to-the-moment synths and touches of pitched-down vocals with standard indie-pop backing and there isn’t much to Purity Ring we haven’t heard before. The press noise surrounding these two is incomprehensible. Let us ponder a band so lacking in substance they make Salem look good.
Shrines lacks any friction; Purity Ring has created a very viable sound that doesn’t offend or stick. The songs are catchy, and producer Corin Roddick executes them well; the beats are interesting enough to allow critics to throw around the word “trap” without too much thought. But the viability on offer here is all too familiar: the band shreds when it comes to buzz, taste, attention, and the other precious substances that make up the internet-music economy, and that invites many marketing opportunities — both self-promoting and consumer-facing — already waiting in the wings of the profile pieces and reviews. The media seems to like this band without being able to offer any particularly compelling reasons why or really reckoning with its mawkish semi-abstractions. Maybe I should have brought up Sleigh Bells in the intro.
This is commercial, calculated music, but that’s not the reason Shrines grates. James and Roddick expend so much effort on market-tested pastiche, they appear to confuse what people like with what people value. They’ve been compared to The Knife, but that’s unfair: from the name on down, Purity Ring are featherweight daydreamers and need to be enjoyed as such, if at all. Don’t let people sell you on the “body horror” of James’s lyrics: the operative image in “Fineshrine” is the imperative “Cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you” (Dennis Cooper, she ain’t). The opening of “Amenamy” is a corker, too: “Somberly, somberly / Linger, lie longerly.” There is an apparently ineluctable need, chez ces deux, to render comfortable ‘n’ cozy. Which is why nobody will ever accuse them of appropriation, why they’ll never overreach embarrassingly, why they sing about guts and I think about succulents; why, even if we disagree, this band is just no fun at all.