In honor of the release of Marie Antoinette last weekend—which, by the way, is a great movie—I thought I'd repost this bit I wrote about the Radio Dept. back in July [slightly edited/updated], to tide over all you dedicated fans of pgwp—surely you are dedicated!—until my tangible life settles down a little. Enjoy.
Last weekend Sofia Coppola released her third film, Marie Antoinette. And with it, as with her previous two films, comes a killer soundtrack. She is one of the few filmmakers out there right now—Wes Anderson, too—that really puts serious effort into making the soundtrack simultaneously heighten the film and stand alone as a great album. (And I draw distinction here between the pop-music soundtrack and a more typical film score.)
Unlike Anderson, however, Coppola has an added (golden) touch when she makes her compilations. At least one band on each of her previous soundtracks got a serious career boost thanks to her selection. With The Virgin Suicides, it was Air; and Lost in Translation sparked huge hipster lust for Phoenix. In both cases each group had previously released their debut albums, which met with a fair amount of success (more in Europe than the U.S.); then they appeared on Coppola’s soundtracks; then their sophomore albums hit stores and achieved much greater notoriety. I doubt Coppola’s endorsement was the sole reason for their spikes, but it was certainly a factor.
Next up is Marie Antoinette, and with it—if there is any justice in the world—Malmo, Sweden’s Radio Dept. will find the same destiny. Three songs on the upcoming soundtrack are by the Radio Dept. Their presence on the soundtrack is akin to Air’s in The Virgin Suicides, in which they blended seamlessly with an otherwise all-‘70s modern rock collection; the Radio Dept. should acheive similar results within the otherwise largely '80s tracks for Marie Antoinette. You might wonder, while watching the film, if the song playing in such-and-such scene is from that New Order or Jesus & Mary Chain album you never picked up.
But while it’s accurate to cite New Order, the Jesus & Mary Chain, or Roxy Music as influences (as well as some '90s shoegazer), the Radio Dept. deserve more credit than that. They are truly a great pop band in their own right. I discovered them a couple of years ago while writing for the (now-defunct) webzine Splendid. The promo for Lesser Matters showed up in my mailbox and I had no expectations—and it turned out to be one of my most obsessively listened-to albums of the year. (See my review here.) In fact I’m still not tired of it.
Since then they have released two EPs, which I haven’t been able to find anywhere, and in July their second full-length, Pet Grief, hit stores. I happened upon it while browsing at Sonic Boom in Seattle last weekend and haven’t stopped listening to it since. The “’80s sound” that the group will inevitably be associated with at every turn is the result of rudimentary drum machines underlying each track, occasional synthesizers, and an added layer of fuzz or reverb over the top of everything. In fact I thought this method was used to better effect (read: less obviously ‘80s) on their first album. With Pet Grief, they’ve left the fuzzy distortion behind and played up the keyboards. The result is an album that hits the same note a little more often than its predecessor. My experience of it is similar to hearing a band like Bedhead or Sigur Rós, where the overall record blurs together but a concentrated effort spent listening to any particular track is rewarding. After listening to Pet Grief for about a week, certain songs are beginning to reveal themselves as standouts (e.g., “I Wanted You to Feel the Same,” with its boldly reverbed piano).
Lesser Matters managed to sidestep this criticism largely due to its more frequent changes in tempo from song to song, not to mention more vocal harmonies (and in one instance a female lead singer). That album seemed to aim for making a collection of great songs, whereas Pet Grief seems more concerned with setting a tone or mood. I prefer Lesser Matters, personally, but both albums are worthwhile purchases.
Radio Dept. has a myspace page, where you can hear four tracks and judge for yourself. Currently they’re on Labrador Records out of Sweden, which makes tracking down their albums in the U.S. tough, but not impossible. (Amazon does have all their material.) I’m willing to bet that by the end of the year, if buzz for the movie and its soundtrack continues to grow, you’ll be hearing more about this group when some smart U.S. label picks them up here and re-release everything (hopefully putting those two EPs on one convenient record for me). But in the meantime, you know it’s so much more gratifying to discover a band before the hype hits, so have at. I’ve led you to water: now drink!