Friendly Fire;
By Paul Thompson

You get about 90 seconds’ warning before the groove deepens on the Phenomenal Handclap Band’s self-titled debut LP. And from there, is it ever on: 65 minutes of slightly spacy live-band psych-disco, Hawkwind jamming with Isaac Hayes with percussion from the Incredible Bongo Band. If that sounds like a party, well, it is a party; you’ll want to grab a drink and do your damndest to have a good time. To that end, the buzzing, burbling four-on-the-floor dancefloor fillers the PHB– a cadre of hot New York-area instrumentalists, joined by guests from TV on the Radio and the Dap-Kings, among others– is a resounding success; a few numbers stand head and shoulders above the rest, but there’s a uniform quality to it all, due in no small part to the hydra-headed band’s instrumental virtuosity and obvious love of all the sounds they’re unabashedly calling their own. But this is also a long-playing record that feels awfully long, due in no small part to the band’s deft but somewhat diagnostic handling of the music. In other words, party or not, nobody’s gonna blame you for keeping an eye towards the door.
The PHB’s sense of reverence for their sources can lend the record a samey quality; sure, there’s a few miles between the wormhole groove of “The Martyr” and the proggy strut of “Dim the Lights”, but they’re on a similar continuum, with round lines bass underpinning jutting horns or spacey synths or what-have-you. It’s hard to point to a track and say “this sounds precisely like that,” but there’s not been quite enough reconfiguration to result in anything intriguingly new; they’re more groove than song most of the time, but boy, do they groove. As such, the parts of the band’s verve that can’t be drawn back to their record collections are largely the result of a spin through the Rolodex, and these guest turns behind the mic give the PHB its reason for being. Jon Spencer (yeah, that guy!) turns in a characteristically groovy little blooz-swoon for “Give It a Rest”, and Si*Sé’s Carol C croons one out over the steely bump of “You’ll Disappear” that might’ve proved a starmaking turn in another decade. Morgan Phalen of the Diamond Nights sounds like he showed up drunk and did his turn in one take, which lends the tune a looseness not often heard on the relatively lockstep LP. Oh, and Lady Tigra’s verse, how can we start? Yes, that Lady Tigra– from legendary hoopty-knock aficianados L’Trimm– takes “15 to 20” for her own, and thank god for it; Tigra waxes funny and mildly paranoid and just a mite “Rapture”-ous, and for really the only time on the LP that the Phenomenal Handclap Band justify all three words in their name at once.
And she’s a ringer! And there’s your trouble. The many folks who make up the Phenomenal Handclap Band do what they do well, but there’s a feeling of anonymity to the band, due to their stable of stand-ins and their workmanlike performances, good as they are at jumbling up a few not-especially-disparate sounds. But the album gets into the most trouble by gleaning a good bit of its personality from outside sources; entirely their intention, I realize, but with the perhaps unintended effect of not leaving one with much impression of what the PHB really are. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the LP for anyone who can’t make an hour on the treadmill, but there are a few tunes here worth hearing. Too bad you can’t exactly make out who’s cranking them out.

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