(Cardboard Queen Records)
Van Goose is largely promoted as “Marcy Playground member” Shlomi Lavie’s solo project, which is true but certainly not indicative of what you’re getting with Habitual Eater. Rather, from the opening drum machine and bass on “Last Bus,” the album quickly draws comparison with the works of another prominent Brooklyn artist: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and The DFA fame. In many ways, this album (especially the first half) splits the difference between those two Murphy projects, injecting a healthy dose of The DFA’s more outwardly ebullient electro-disco beats into the framework of original, eccentric, jittery and humorous indietronica/dance-punk tunes.
There’s an argument to be made that there’s no greater weapon for a pop songwriter to wield than ADD, and Lavie makes it exceedingly well on the A-side of Habitual Eater. Tracks generally start minimal but quickly build into towering monuments to hip New York clubs as Lavie ceaselessly stacks rhythms on top of one another like a child curious to see how high he can go before it all comes tumbling down. He’s an imaginative architect, but not an unrealistic one. He crafts polyrhythms from such conventional instrumentation as drums, guitar, bass and synths to more peculiar choices such as Wurli, Synare and Omnichord. These constructions get about as busy as possible without becoming overwhelming or overcrowded, giving the listener an abundance of disparate patterns to follow and compulsively jerk about the brain and body whilst still giving each individual part plenty of room to breathe within the mix.
As a drummer first and foremost, it’d be reasonable to expect that Lavie would have a firm handle on the percussive elements of his music. What’s more surprising is his gift for quirky, endlessly quotable vocal hooks. From “I have no feeling in my upper jaw/ I should have taken the last bus” (“Last Bus”) to “ I laid an egg/ On Mike Myers ” (“Mike Myers”), Lavie demonstrates an uncanny knack for getting a listener to shout clever absurdities along with him. His humor also has a tendency to venture into black territory: “She’s No Pressure” was inspired by the real life story of a woman crashing her own funeral after her husband put out a hit on her and she faked her death, disturbed and subversive subject matter for such a bouncy, radio-ready tune.
If Habitual Eater could be likened to an aerobics tape, its A-side is a briskly paced warm-up and frenetic, challenging early-middle workout. The B-side is the cool-down. “Right Wave” is the closest in form to the opening four and works as a solid pop song on its own, but it lacks much of the infectious charm, inventive assembly and sheer kinetic energy that make “She’s No Pressure” and “Where’s My Guy” such addictive ear candy. “On My Hand” rounds out the tracks that could reasonably be called dance music, but adapts a notably different aura as a cold, brooding sci-fi shuffle: The tempo is knocked down several notches and Lavie’s vocals are sparse, stoic and modulated to make him sound robotic as ray gun-like synths light up the atmosphere. An interesting experiment, but also one that works against Lavie’s natural charisma.
The two songs that end Habitual Eater are even more substantial departures, one a resounding success, the other considerably less so. “On My Hand” and “Right Wave” are good songs that fall victim to the context created by their stellar brethren: such is not the case for “Relax Your Face,” a stiff, awkward, groove-less track that stands as Devil’s Advocate against the argument for attention deficit made earlier. Where “Last Bus” and “Mike Myers” would shift and layer the fringe ideas borne of being unable to settle in thought and then compile them into a focused package, “Relax Your Face” aggressively and stiltedly marches through its runtime without much care. On the other hand, “Wildstar” is phenomenal, easily the crown jewel of the second half, with its breathtaking production and space rock/neo-psych overtones.
Habitual Eater ends up a remarkable debut, positively oozing fun from its every pore through its first half. While the B-side is more of a mixed bag, it still largely consists of relatively well written material and “Wildstar” is a gem. It’s more than worthy of your attention, and more than worthy of dropping “Marcy Playground member” from its future press materials: Van Goose stands firmly on its own.
Favorite tracks: “Last Bus”, “Wildstar”
You can purchase Van Goose’s Habitual Eater here.
This review was originally written for Spectrum Culture and later adapted for Counterzine.