On "Social Dancing," Bis' music grows more polished just as the group's moment passes. Once upon a time -- three years ago, to be exact -- their willfully childish, candy-coated mix of cheesy new wave synths and spare pop-punk seemed cheeky and insouciant. The Glasgow trio merged two strains of infantilism -- the pacifier-sucking anomie-Lolita aesthetic of the rave scene and the bratty insurgence of the riot grrl movement. At the time, their escape into kiddie land was a welcome retreat from the dreary grunge dirges that had dominated mid-'90s rock. The boy-girl harmonies and rudimentary three-chord, three-minute musical bon-bons on the compilation EP "This Is Teen-C Power!" (1997) were as refreshing as a glass of sugary Kool-Aid after too many warm cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
But unlike, say, Cibo Matto, who combine their faux-naif exuberance with sophisticated experimentation, Bis is still struggling to find the vision to transcend cartoonish pastiche. As everyone knows, kiddie pop, aka teeny-bop pop, has taken over the airwaves. If young adults dressing up like children once carried a perverse pedophiliac frission or a hint of Peter Pan defiance, they certainly don't anymore. "Social Dancing" has Bis casting about for a more enduring sound and for lyrics that don't refer endlessly to "the kids" and "hi skool." Although several songs succeed, the band most often seems shackled to their own waning trendiness.
The best song on "Social Dancing" is the manic, melodic "Shopaholic," which combines a whiny punk-tinged recitation of consumer temptations with a gorgeous, glossy Europop chorus. It sounds as if John Lydon and Kylie Minogue had collaborated on a single, and the balance of sweet and sour makes it delectable. The song denounces consumer culture without denying its addictive pleasures, while the music alternates sneering reproach with luscious indulgence.
Elsewhere, though, the contradiction between the lure of ephemeral cool and Bis' hunger for something more substantial leads the band into joyless lyrical hectoring. Most frustrating is the way they rail against shallowness and conformism while falling prey to both in their music. "Been used as a trading tool/Last big thing uncool/we're tied to a timebomb," sings Sci-Fi Steven on the moody "Sale of the Return." The irony is that "Sale of Return" is itself an example of planned pop obsolescence Steven is raging at, built as it around an utterly exhausted device -- the old slinky spy film trip-hop loop. Similarly, the denunciations of DJ culture on "Action and Drama" seem silly given the fact that "Social Dancing" relies more on electronic beats and techno production than any previous Bis album. "The idols, the press darlings are the faceless DJs," sings Steven on "Action and Drama. He continues, "I'd like my idols human, not programmed in computers/Pop music's not going to die, it just has no direction." The song itself is terribly catchy, combining bouncy synthesizers, simple guitars, upbeat, singalong choruses and even a few snatches of breakbeats. But where does a band that only gets new ideas come from dance culture get off denouncing it? And instead of bemoaning pop's lack of direction, shouldn't they be trying to provide some?