Santogold – Santogold
Downtown Music (North America: 4/29/08; UK/Europe: 5/12/08)
Alternative / Dub / Ska / Punk
Santi White, a.k.a. Santogold, is ten pounds of pretentious in a five-pound bag. If you’ve picked up any rock journalism rag in the last few weeks you’ve probably heard how her eponymous self-titled first album is the second coming of sliced bread, and the future of pop music at that. Even the press release accompanying this record claims “this is better than good” in boldface. She’s usually compared to M.I.A for her polyculturalism and penchant for wringing straight-up dance pop through a pile of experimentalism, and this is as fair for the obvious reasons at it is unfair for the most shameful (namely, their skin tone).
Here’s the kicker: Santogold’s record is good enough to warrant at least a portion of the hype in which it’s currently being drowned. Listened to in a media vacuum and knowing nothing about Ms. White’s condescending enlightened-liberal personality, you could easily be fooled into thinking this record is a pure, joyous expression of electrodelic pop by way of second-wave ska and mid-eighties college rock. But every note of this album is filtered through a smirking ironic screen, and in the end you’ll just feel like you’ve been cast a schmuck for dancing to it.
“Shove It” and “Say Aha” are the one-two punch of Two-Tone ska on this record, and it is comfortable territory for Santogold. “Say Aha” is mostly straightforward and skankable, vibing Madness in a way that most of Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat label has been attempting for years and never quite achieving. “Shove It”, featuring indie-raunch rapper Spank Rock, has a laid-back dub beat with some sampled horns calling to mind The Specials’ “Ghost Town”. The vocals here are, as most of the record, melodic and singsongy in a way that both teen pop and New Wave were; what bothers me is that for all her attempts in interviews of political relevance, the lyrics of the chorus show how facile and demeaning Santogold’s vibe really is (“We think you’re a joke / shove your hope where it don’t shine.”).
“Creator”, the technorific track chopped up by Switch & FreQ Nasty—that can currently be heard in Bud Light Lime commercials—starts out with some epic jungle tribal drumming and keeps the dance blasting and frenetic. “Unstoppable” is built around an extremely obtuse sample that sounds like it could have been hatched by Tom Morrello before being put through the wringer and has a staccato beat that will keep your head bobbing, a good soundtrack for a night on Blue Dolphins.
The rest of the record seems to have its feet firmly in the facile kiddie-pop-with-an-ironic-bent realm of New Wave. “You’ll Find a Way” would have made a great Blondie single, but with the reliance on echo effects and its insistent two-chord riffery, it just sounds like The Sounds. Santogold’s Wikipedia page mentions how she’s been compared to the Pixies, and this doesn’t make a lick of sense until you get to “I’m a Lady” which is a mellow and sweeping piece of alterna-pop that is only marred by some painful falsetto on behalf of Ms. White. Discounting the tacked on Switch & Sinden remix of “You’ll Find A Way”, the album is bookended by the two of the most self-serious and drab songs on the record. “Anne” is outright Björky, with everything echoey and spaced-out. It attempts a gothic fever dream (she even howls like a wolf for a lot of the verses) but comes off like shoegazer pop listened to through a wall from someone else’s apartment.
The first track, “L.E.S. Artistes” was heralded by more than a few mainstream rock mags as the standout track of this record, but I just don’t hear it. The chorus lyric of “I can stand up for the things that I believe” is a lame half-baked attempt at casting oneself in a bohemian light, and all the rock-oriented distortion and guitar lead doesn’t change the fact that the song is built around a rigid Teutonic four-square drumbeat.
So some of Santogold’s first record is good, but so effing what? Santi White comes from Philly but she’s all New York in her condescension and obtuseness. This record is a patchwork of au courant retro stylings and the sneering self-indulgent irony that is so prevalent in today’s tiresome indie scene. Santogold shows talent but I hope for all the everloving life of me that she flames out spectacularly—that she becomes another rock-critic false god that is crushed under the weight of her own hype. Then maybe after she’s been humbled by the reality of how indifferent us average schmos are to what she’s selling, she’ll learn how to take the ear she obviously has for what was good about classic pop and alternative-oriented music and what possibilities modern technologies hold for it, and turn that into a more earnest and pure piece of art that is deserving of all the attention this album is getting. Until then, I want to hurry up and forget about Santogold.