Regardless of one’s feelings about The Ting Tings – day-glo pop masterminds or mere dancefloor diversions – they’d doubtlessly be a surprising addition to the canon of 2000s artists granted pop longevity. Their debut record, We Started Nothing, was a dance-rock jackpot, spilling out a startling amount of durable singles like a generous Atlantic City slot machine; but it, as a record, never offered anything below the heavily stylized surface. Not that all music needs to, mind you – it’s just that, unlike other artists that work in the electronic milieu like LCD Soundsystem or Gorillaz, The Ting Tings felt distinctly like the kind of band that you’d never hear from again.
And that premonition may be slightly true. As legend has it, the Brit duo wrote a dancefloor-focused follow-up to Nothing, scrapped it in disgust (with either themselves or their record company, depending on which story you believe), and recorded the more gratifying Sounds From Nowheresville instead. By shifting their focus slightly away from the airwaves – indeed, there is very little on the album that sounds like it could dominate FM playlists like “Shut Up And Let Me Go” or “That’s Not My Name” – The Ting Tings make their stab at legitimacy with a convincing eclecticism, but possibly at the expense of commercial potential. Nowheresville quite often delivers on the bratty, petulant energy that fueled their last platter of hits, but all-too-rarely trades on the duo’s incisive way with an earworm.
Which only means that Sounds From Nowheresville is a pretty schizophrenic pop record. “Silence” seems like a curious choice for an opener – it’s all slow build and Depeche Mode atmospherics, largely devoid of the sort of spindly energy that characterized Nothing. It works well as a one-off, but “Hit Me Down Sonny” is more like it, a taunting schoolyard chant draped over skeletal, martial percussion and chicken-scratch guitars; that it erodes into a weird “99 Problems”/Led Zeppelin homage in its final third only makes it work more. The Ting Tings weave deftly through the pop-music landscape, touching on repurposed Lou Reed spoken-word (“Guggenheim”), chirpy faux-reggae (“Soul Killing”), Natasha Bedingfield pop balladry (“Day to Day”), morose chamber-pop (“In Your Life”). Individual tracks distinguish themselves – “Guggenheim”, in particular, emerges as a tense, aggressive centerpiece, harnessing vocalist Katie White’s bratty sneer and gift for working a concept into a frenzy – but Nowheresville sounds suspiciously like a bits-and-pieces record, perhaps a b-sides compilation or a late-career, emptying-the-vaults collection. Its best songs have a terrific kick to them: “Sonny”, “Guggenheim”, and even the overtly pop-baiting “Day to Day” with its pleasantly inane chorus and loping 6/8 acoustic rhythm are instant charmers.
Still, Sounds From Nowheresville never really finds its footing as a record. Consider how breathlessly energetic We Started Nothing was, always maintaining forward momentum even in its less-delirious moments; Nowheresville is the sound of a band trying on different hats, looking desperately for one that fits. They nail a few potential candidates; narrowing their focus for record number three would suit The Ting Tings nicely.