Sharps & flats

Gay Dad are a controversial sensation in England, proving once again that the only thing that the Brit press likes better than pure pop is overbearing hype.

Published September 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A British band founded by a rock critic who thought he could do better than the musicians he was forced to listen to at work, Gay Dad often seems like some kind of ironic conceptual art project about Britpop clichis. Their debut, "Leisure Noise," is quite competent and totally soulless. It was a hit in Britain, and the source of much controversy in the prickly English music press. No wonder. The band distills everything conventional and unthreatening in the British rock scene into a single glossy package. It's like Suede without the glamor, Blur without the inspired hooks, Pulp without the scathing wit and devastating pathos. All the musicianship is, well, fine, but never more than that, and the lyrics seem to refer to nothing except for the most worn tropes of pop songwriting. "To Earth With Love," for instance, contains all of the following lines: "Send those blues away, it's a beautiful day"; "Come on, let's get it on"; and "You better look out world, cause nothing's gonna bring me down."

The 10 songs on "Leisure Noise," are all mid-tempo and jangly, all catchy without being arresting, like TV jingles. Even after a dozen or so listens, you need the track listing in hand to tell most of them apart. Singer, guitarist and Svengali Cliff Jones has a voice that's almost eerily generic -- a boyish, John Lennon manque whine, occasionally rough with approximated passion. Even at his most emotional, Jones can only recapitulate other, better songs. "My Son Mystic," for example, is a watered-down version of Pulp's searing "A Little Soul," minus the latter's aching regret and tough resignation.

Gay Dad hasn't made any secret of their somewhat contrived beginnings, but even someone who knew nothing about the band would probably guess that there was little garage jamming or hole-in-the-wall gigging in its past. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with the idea of systematically pursuing rock stardom -- Madonna long ago made it seem OK to stop hiding naked commercial ambition behind lofty artistic inspiration, and the Runaways were far more prefab than Gay Dad is. The problem is that Gay Dad's phoniness and bland insincerity pervades every note on "Leisure Noise," so that, while it starts out as innocuous upbeat guitar pop, by the end it's sour and grating.

There's no way to know for sure whether the band is an elaborately orchestrated pomo joke or just another toothless pop record made for massive amounts of undeserved hype. But either way, "Leisure Noise" is like a musical robot -- all the parts are in place, but the animating spark is missing, and it feels dead.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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