Mindlessness: Pleasures and pretense of a mechanical man

The New Deal
at Starr Hill Music Hall
Sunday, October 26, 2003

When The New Deal's drummer Darren Shearer beatboxed Sunday night, October 26, he nearly replicated the actual sounds of drums being hit. How awful!

Beatboxing is a charming act; it thrives on the appearance of human approximation, the silly wonder of non-verbal blurts and growls. Yet The New Deal, whose impetus is to improvise house music, stifle their own creative freedom in studied, mechanical technique, a performance as concrete, useful, and obvious as a road. And there were so many places the band could have gone.

"You guys feelin' all right?" Shearer asked the enthusiastic crowd. "That's what we're all here for, right? Keeping it live!"

Indeed, the bass and drums sounded richer and more pleasant without technological compression, but it's an insult to DJ culture to suggest that the band's compositions are more sophisticated. Sure, there are catchy dub breaks, beautiful fills, and tangents into '70s fusion and drum-and-bass. But these variations felt like a multiple-choice survey: gimmicks, rather than inspiration.

The timbral palette never strayed far from the keyboards demo presets (a multiple-choice exam on electronic whoops). The tempo changes weren't just gradual, they were telegraphed in advance. Even the solos seemed perfunctory, the illusion of "character," computer graphics recast in oil paintings.

The band might as well not have shown up; we couldn't even see them on the dim, smoky stage, a '50s-film dream scene. Pretty girls and sweat-shirted boys bobbed and waved, just smiling at themselves– the way they felt, the way they moved. And at every little break or stutter from the trance came a rest stop– a communal "Woooo!" from the heavy, collegiate crowd to say, "Yes, we're all experiencing this at the same time!"

These were the moments when a song really worked, when you thought, "Now! That's how the song is supposed to sound!"– when The New Deal most predictably followed the generic conventions of Guitar Center techno. The blue glow of the flashing lights reminded me of a television: Here was the instant gratification of getting exactly what you already expect. Affectless and warm, it made people dance, and it made me happy.

But it's so, so sad to resort to a prescription, or a placebo, or a rehashed resin.

Their live-house mission is absurd, and their success is impressive and frightening. Consider the terrible, pitiable irony: The New Deal prove exactly why today's music doesn't need live musicians.

The New Deal