Knee Deep

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True musical omnivores, Copenhagen's WhoMadeWho have always been far too slippery a beast to be encapsulated by the standard-issue genre tags -- dance-punk; disco-rock -- they're often saddled with. To wit, even before completely overhauling their self-titled 2005 debut into a set of beatless, acoustic psych-folk (Green Versions), they'd already sprinkled a surprising number of gentler, guitar-led tunes among its party-starting electro jams. And 2009's The Plot was a wily, wayward amalgam of strutting glam rock, slo-mo space pop, blistering techno-boogie, and goofy instrumental funk. So if the markedly moody, downcast turn the trio take on their third proper album (and Kompakt debut), Knee Deep, comes as a slight surprise, attentive followers should at least realize they're no strangers to the unexpected. Actually, this is easily the band's most cohesive, streamlined outing yet, not just due to its relatively sleek length (it's technically billed as a mini-album, though it's a generous one at 38 minutes, not counting a bonus instrumental which plays like the intersection of Daft Punk and Explosions in the Sky) but because it sustains a consistent, though hardly monochromatic, air of melancholy and doubt, tapping into the darker aspects of their moniker's wry, pithy existentialism. "There's an Answer" sets the tone, with sinuous bass clarinet, ominous strings, and choral accompaniment bolstering Jeppe Kjellberg's restrained, world-weary vocal -- "now the man is not so sure of what he feels," he muses blankly -- and only an intermittent, submerged 4/4 thump gesturing toward the kinetic dynamism of the band's earlier work. That sense of alienated uncertainty grows even more marked on the brooding, throbbing darkwave of "Every Minute Alone," which can't even muster up a refrain more confident than a weak, bewildered "should I call you up," question mark left ambiguously unexpressed. WhoMadeWho haven't entirely lost their interest in moving bodies, though: the pulsing syncopated blips of "All That I Am" (think Booka Shade circa Movements) offer plenty of dancefloor potential -- especially if it's goth night -- to say nothing of the viciously strobing synths and thunderous disco-funk groove of the powerhouse "Two Feet Off Ground." Despite the bleakness and gloom that permeate the album, it never feels timid or insular; both musically and emotionally, Knee Deep is far weightier than its title implies. WhoMadeWho have been accomplished, even inspired, in the past, but here they emerge on a whole new level, displaying a subtle command of tension and release and an assured, seamless blending of rock and electronics, suffused with unfeigned emotionalism, which calls to mind the confidence and mastery of marquee acts like LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead. It turns out depth is a good look for these guys.

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