At times We Are Scientists sound as if they could be nerdy, cleaner-cut younger brothers to The Killers. At others they sound like a more polished second coming of The Get Up Kids. On their fourth album, Barbara, the New York duo (now joined by ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows) don their respective lab coats and try out a lot of the same experiments, manipulating the variables ever so slightly. The resulting concoction is instantly catchy, but also risks being nearly as instantly forgettable.
Along with their knack for writing hook-heavy, danceable pop songs, We Are Scientists tend to walk the Weezer line between humour and sentimentality; thin, white nerdiness and feigned badass bruisery. The effect (as with the aforementioned Weezer) is that it’s never clear whether these guys want to be taken seriously. The answer is probably no, and that’s just as well.
Sure, the gimmick tends to wear a little thin at the heels, where the dancing eventually causes exhaustion and the Miami Vice vibes go in and out of vogue. But four albums in, it’s apparent that WAS is not just faking it. Keith Murray and Chris Cain are students of bygone dance pop and the lighter side of pop-punk, and it’s certainly worth the price of admission to sweat it out with them for a while.
Lead single Rules Don’t Stop thrusts spastically, providing an ample background for Murray’s tenor challenge: “Rules don’t stop me. Forget about it.” The faux machismo of I Don’t Bite is an excellent example of the bands mixed messages. The riff writhes with pseudo-punk angularity, but Murray’s soaring and lightly sweetened vocal keeps things suitable for the library.
Nice Guys is the sort of song that just hasn’t been made since the emo bronze age at the turn of the century. It’s moments like the simply stunning chorus that allow WAS to really shine. They sound a bit like Jimmy Eat World, Murray singing, “If you want this, I want it more,” with emotive vibrato over big guitar power chords.
As usual, Murray pursues those well-worn rock ‘n’ roll tropes, girls and booze. On Pittsburgh, he sings: “All we want is to be together.” Then he clarifies: “All we want is to sleep together.” On Break It Up, he questions the party mentality, asking, “If no one wants to be up all night, what’s the point in even going out?”
It’s not heavy stuff, but it doesn’t need to be. WAS are at their best when they settle into a groove and allow the melody to take its place at the fist-pumping front of the soundfield. For longtime fans, Barbara will likely provide a few new gems for the We Are Scientists canon. At ten tracks, it risks coming off as a bit light, but Murray and Cain stuff ten pounds of catchiness into a five-pound pair of skinny jeans.
Ultimately, it’s quite fine to dance the night away with Barbara whether you remember any of it the next morning or not.