If you ask me, a worthwhile trip should have plenty of kaleidoscopic whimsy, but also a sense of menace lurking in the shadows. A trip that’s all rainbow butterflies and pinwheel treetops is nice and all, but where’s the challenge in that? If, on the other hand, you can skip through cotton candy meadows and marvel at the cosmic beauty in a single dandelion spore for hours on end, while at the same time courageously swatting every mischievous imp that periodically tries to pounce on you from the abyss of your subconsciousness, well then you’ve exercised a tremendously valuable real-life skill, haven’t you?
Django Django’s frequently great, extremely promising self-titled album knows how to balance the light and the dark in the realm of psychedelia. The boomba-boom drums sound like dancefloors quaking beneath the feet of 1,000 candy-flippers at the rave of the century, yet they also sound like ancient hunters chasing you through a midnight forest. The melodies are jaunty as London fops, yet squirmy as easily-agitated eels. The guitars bubble and groove when they’re not plotting your demise. The synths propel neon trails across the sky, right before they charm pits of venomous cobras. The lyrics blend the idyllic (“Look at the hills/ they look so green/ the horizon is the place that you always dream“) with perilous interstellar overdrive (“Stars shine in the night sky/ you light up like a solar flare/ watch us burn up on contact/ as we enter the atmosphere”).
Django Django is generally more potent when swallowed whole as a 48-minute odyssey, though it does have its fair share of single-worthy tracks. The best of those is “Default,” a bitter, block-busting dance-rock jam with an irresistible glitch-throb hook. “Firewater” shimmies and snaps along to a friendly acoustic guitar lick over a drinker’s lament (“My liver’s up and left me/ the devil thinks I’m great“). And there’s a particularly strong string in the middle of the album’s second half, starting with “Wor,” which gallops astride a rockabilly-surf riff that recalls PJ Harvey’s “50 Foot Queenie.” “Storm” features some of the album’s most enticing melodies, as well as a groove that’s simultaneously sleek and herky-jerky, right before “Life’s A Beach” keeps the shindig rolling with Beach Boys harmonies and sinister breakdowns.
Only a couple tracks border on uninspired. “Skies Over Cairo” takes on a hookah-smoking Middle Eastern vibe we’ve heard many times before, only it doesn’t add much aside from some video game sound effects. And centerpiece “Zumm Zumm” defies practically everything that works on Django Django: where all the other tracks are tight and lean, “Zumm Zumm” pads itself out to nearly 5 and a half minutes; instead of inducing any kind of trance, the repetitive hooks turn annoying real quick; and it’s pure silliness, with none of the darkness we talked about earlier to balance things out.
But Django Django‘s missteps are minor and totally forgivable compared to its triumphs. Wherever Syd Barrett is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s looking down on this band, smiling his childlike smile, and wondering where they’ll journey next.