Sunday, September 7, 2008

N*E*R*D - Seeing Sounds

One thing has plagued N*E*R*D since its conception in 2001. No, its not that people call them “Nerd” as opposed to spelling out the acronym (standing for No one Ever Really Dies), or that female fans gravitate to the band more for Pharrell William’s chiseled abs than for the actual music. Well, actually both of those things contribute to the problem. The enigma that has followed them through each of their albums is that most music enthusiasts don’t take them as a serious band. Even winning the Shortlist Prize for their debut In Search Off… and garnering tons of critical praise haven’t helped to break the glass ceiling preventing them from being considered a major force in today’s musical landscape. So in the ever-growing list of projects from production team The Neptunes, where did this one stand?

After declaring in 2005 that he was hanging up the N*E*R*D moniker, Pharrell emerged at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas to bring news of their third release Seeing Sounds and to debut songs off it. Along with Pharrell the band consists of co-Neptunian Chad Hugo, sidekick/backing vocalist Shae Haley, and they once again enlist power pop band Spymob to help create their genre bending sound. Is it alternative hip-hop? Rock rap? Funk rock? Well since they don’t cater to any category when creating the music, let’s just call them N*E*R*D and let that be that.

The album title Seeing Sounds refers to the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, when the brain mistakes one of the body’s five senses for another. A fitting description for an album filled with speaker-killing beats, beginning right from the opener “Time For Some Action.” Following that is the first single, “Nobody Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom),” which is the trademark club thumper that they are known for.

The downside is that they don’t seem to progress past that ability to get the party poppin’. Lyrically Pharrell keeps in his lady-killer mode. Practically every song is either about the want for sex, the act of sex, or breaking up and not having sex anymore. It’s lacking the diversity of songs like “Jump,” a great tune about growing up, or the anti-draft “Drill Sergeant”- both off their 2004 release Fly or Die.

But what N*E*R*D lacks in variety they make up by building their most consistently thorough collection. It doesn’t excel past being more than just a party album, but hell, it’s a solid party album. Take the post-breakup song “Happy,” which proclaims, “Don’t try coming back, because I will not be there. It’s not like you ever cared.” Not the most original lines ever recorded, but you are officially stiffer than Frankenstein’s monster if that backing track doesn’t get you swaying to the beat.

The album should use “Love Bomb” as the closing song, where Pharrell sings the idea of curing violence and corrupt governments by dropping a bomb filled with the fluffiness of love on earth. It’s the most profound of the crop and would have been a great way to sum up the sexy-time theme of Seeing Sounds. Instead it ends with another typical dance track, “Laugh About It” (except for the iTunes release which tags on a remix of “Everyone Nose” at the end). It’s a much weaker closing impression than the one they could have had, but it will do.

So in the quest for artistic acceptance, it looks like Pharrell and company have taken a step forward while simultaneously taking a step back. Theoretically leaving them in the same position they were before this outing. However, Seeing Sounds does prove that N*E*R*D is the most unique venture to come from The Neptunes, and their mash-up of musical styles continues to stick out among the crowd of other bands who try to do the same.

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