French Kicks are consistently contradictory, a wily band that can be hard to pin down. Their songs, alternately anxious and assured, rambunctious and relaxed, put to rest any preconceived notions one may have about this bunch of D.C.-bred/Brooklyn-based hipsters, especially as they continue to move away from their garage-y roots. And on their second full-length album, The Trial of the Century, they've come out of the garage and stand poised at the front door, ready to throw their sweet sales pitch your way.
And it's a pitch you need to hear, from urgent opener "One More Time" onward.
This lead track effectively encapsulates and epitomizes where the French Kicks
are coming from on this year's model, with vocalist/drummer Nick Stumpf sounding
apprehensive as all get-out through his singing and skinswork alike. A nervously
chattering keyboard part adds to the stuffy atmosphere like so much ozone on
a hot summer day in the city before the rest of the band chimes in to begin bailing
the singer out with their harmony vocals, guitars, and more keys. Yet the tension
keeps building until the song nearly explodes two-thirds through, cooling down
through a very cool and tidy five-note guitar riff that signals Stumpf and
the listener to relax. It's quite a neat trick, really, seeing as how
the final bars of the song nearly replicate the opening, reminiscent of the way
in which a rainstorm seems calmer in its descending phase once the thunder and
lightning have passed.
After the lead song's rollercoaster ride, the exquisitely paced Trial of the Century pulls back via the easygoing pop of "Don't Thank Me," Stumpf and his bassist brother Lawrence settling into a straightforward groove while guitarists Matt Stinchcomb and Josh Wise twang and bang, showing a surprising Duane Eddy influence. The title track rides a simple piano bit through the verses, the subdued guitars adding texture and mandolin swells suggesting French Kicks have left the New Rock Revolution behind once and for all an impression further strengthened by the stomping percussive pseudo doo-wop the band brings forth with "Oh Fine." And then, lest things travel too far backward or forward in time, the band drops "The Falls," the most straightforward and guitar-driven rock song on display here.
The Trial of the Century is the rare album that finds me continually second- (and third-!) guessing which of its 11 tracks is my favorite. Is it the inspired AM-radio sound of "Following Waves"? The frenetic and freaky "Yes I Guess," which grafts a rhythm guitar part purchased at a Wedding Present jumble sale with a looping keyboard pattern and one of Stumpf's less restrained (or just plain strained) vocal performances? The reassurances brought forth by "You Could Not Decide," on which Wise delivers a suave-sounding lead vocal that places him in the Ben Orr (the "other" singer from The Cars) heartthrob role to counterbalance Stumpf's geeky Ric Ocasek-ish tendencies? Or one of the other eight wonders offered on this disc?
With this album, French Kicks have taken a sizeable leap forward, taking the
right bits and pieces from half a century of rock 'n' roll to make something
new and, yes, unique. Despite the doughtiness inherent in the sound of his name
("Nick Stumpf" just doesn't have the instant cachet of a "Julian Casablancas" or
the coolness of a "Karen O"), Stumpf is an intriguing character, almost gawky-looking
on stage as he towers over his bandmates, his lyrics and voice alike swinging
like a pendulum as he alternates between being the lonesome loser and king of
the hill. More everyman than superman, and all the better for it.
"More French Kicks, sir?" Yes, please.