I've been a fan of the Radio Dept. since 2003, when I heard their debut, Lesser Matters, by chance. That album ranks among my favorites of the last ten years (if it doesn't top the list altogether), so I'm glad to see, seven years later, that the band seems to have finally gained the notoriety they deserve with last year's acclaimed Clinging to a Scheme. Scheme is the band's third full-length in all (Pet Grief, from 2006, being the one in between), and the rap on that record was that it took the Radio Dept. just shy of forever to make it.
That doesn't mean the band's discography is paltry, as this new compilation attests. The collection gathers some (not all) of their myriad non-album tracks along with a small primer on their full-lengths. It's a nice overview of the Radio Dept.'s aesthetic—straddling the borders of shoegaze, twee, and synth pop. Outside of true-blue fans who already have every EP, every single, every compilation appearance, Passive Aggressive probably contains enough material to be worth picking up.
Still, like any compilation album, it doesn't feel perfect. Its two discs are split by the somewhat arbitrary division of "a-sides" and "b-sides"—though outside of their home country of Sweden one would be hard pressed to name the "singles" from their albums. The band is too under the radar, possessing too few albums, to warrant anything resembling a greatest hits collection. Yet six of the first disc's thirteen tracks are album cuts. If you're new to Radio Dept., or if you only own Clinging to a Scheme, you'd be better served getting their full lengths than this. There are too many great songs on those records (especially Lesser Matters) to think that Passive Aggressive could be a satisfactory substitute.
Because of the way the album is organized, it presents two separate (roughly) chronologic discs, which rubbed me as arbitrarily strange at first. Why take me across the decade twice? Why not just arrange the whole thing chronologically and let the a-sides and b-sides fall where they may? Going by their albums, after all, you can detect a maturation of the band's sound. The Radio Dept. has never had a live drummer, yet Lesser Matters feels like a more rock-oriented album; the guitars are very present. Songs like "Where the Damage Isn't Already Done" (also in this collection) are totally guitar-oriented shoegazey jams.
- The Radio Dept.: Where Damage Isn't Already Done
Pet Grief, however, was a much more atmospheric record. Synths came up in the mix, guitars were less riff-oriented, and the drum programming, while still rudimentary, felt more influenced by electronica (that album is represented by just one track, the excellent "The Worst Taste in Music"). Clinging to a Scheme was like a synthesis of both those earlier records—the aura of Pet Grief without sacrificing the tunes of Lesser Matters.
With that development in mind, I found it awkward to sequence the discs of Passive Aggressive like two laps around the same track. So, in an act of twenty-first-century rebellion, I sorted the double-album by release date instead, listening for the maturation and hoping I'd hear something in these rarities that shined a new light on the ideas running through the Radio Dept.'s heads in the last decade (the way, for instance, Low seems to experiment with their own sound on their various EPs).
- The Radio Dept.: This Past Week
What I learned in this listening experiment surprised me. All the elements I thought the Radio Dept. grew into over time were more or less present from the start. Or, maybe more accurately, the band has only stretched by skips and steps, not leaps and bounds, over the years. Being one of my favorite bands, that's only a mild knock against them. Much like the Kings of Convenience, who also only manage to release a new full-length every three or four years, their output is so sporadic that by the time something new comes along I'm more than fine with it being a minor variation on whatever they've done before. That means Passive Aggressive isn't much of a revelation, but it is a bunch of new Radio Dept. songs that I'm glad to have.
If you're like me and you have all of the band's full-lengths but little else, Passive Aggressive is a worthy addition to the iTunes library—even if it's still not complete. In addition to their three albums, for instance, the band has also released three EPs in the last eight years, and only the title tracks from those EPs are represented here. Instead the set is mostly filled out by b-sides from their singles—worthy songs, sure. Passive Aggressive collects the hardest of the hard-to-find material, just not all of it.
But whatever. I just got a little over a disc's worth of new-to-me Radio Dept. songs, so I'm stoked.
- The Radio Dept.: The New Improved Hypocrisy