Datarock have always been a band that have loved to do extravagant things, often in spite of better judgment (as they themselves will admit). They recently did a show with a 430 kids on stage (requiring them to make 430 little tracksuits), and in 2011 released a single with 105 bonus tracks, 20 music videos, a concert film, and hundreds of photos. Certainly this is a bit out of the ordinary for a group that is by day a four-piece New Wave revival outfit, not exactly the sort of group that tends to think on an epic scale. But one senses that frontman Fredrik Saroea is the sort of man who likes to do crazy things first and ask questions later.
Datarock the Musical has technically been in development for a while, at least since the release of their 2011 EP California, which contained five songs for the project. Of course I always thought that Datarock didn’t really have a musical in the back of their pocket. In fact, even now that they’ve actually done it, I still don’t. But the band were commissioned to perform it in 2013 for Norway’s giant Numusic festival, and therefore had no choice but to figure it out. They wound up finding a talented arranger named Bjørn Morten Christophersen to handle the orchestral bits, hired a conductor, a stage manager, a visual artist, a choir, and a full orchestra – 85 people in total, who were given about two weeks to get everything together, including only a single day to rehearse.
Surprisingly, they wound up making it work – “somehow…it turned out okay!”, Fredrik later would say. But it does expose Datarock’s Achilles heel: their inability to write enough songs. This has dogged them for a while – my pet peeve about their otherwise excellent album Red is that it recycles two songs from an EP they released two years prior. Not that I minded hearing them again, but you’d think there would be a statute of limitation on such things. Likewise they’ve done several one-off tunes for compilations that aren’t really new songs, just reworked versions of songs like “Princess” or “Fa-Fa-Fa”. Of the 19 tracks on here, five are from California, two are from Catcher in the Rye, and three are singles that were released between 2012 and 2013. That leaves nine tracks, but it’s debatable how many of them count as “new songs” – one’s a brief overture, another’s almost entirely dialogue (“The Phone Call”), and the tunes towards the end are really just there to wrap up the story.
The story is pretty simple, as it is basically the story of Datarock thus far. Fredrik plays himself, a man who fantasizes of forming a hit band (“The Dream”), so he leaves his town (“Walk Away”) and heads for California in search of fame, achieves some measure of success (“Magazines and Hall of Fame”) and tours the country (“Minneapolis”), but eventually misses home (“Guiding Star”) and decides to return. I’m not sure exactly where all these songs fit in, but that’s the idea. It’s sequenced in a strange way – after the overture, all 10 previously released tunes come in a row, ending with “Life is a Musical”, after which the new stuff which was clearly meant for the stage play begins. The album was put together using the original channels from the live performance, but the previously released music rely heavily on the better-recorded studio versions. In fact they really are just those same tracks, but with the orchestral parts over the top. So the first half is kind of like a Datarock remix album, while the second half feels like any other too-many-people-on-stage live album, uneven mics and all. Not that there’s anything wrong with the fidelity, just a lot going on at once.
So there’s two ways of hearing this album, either you’ve heard most of the material before or you haven’t, and you haven’t then this the essentially the long-awaited 3rd Datarock LP. I mean, if you can ignore the fact that many of these songs are four years old, you’ll find that there really are a lot of great tracks on here, including tons of single fodder (“Catcher in the Rye”, “California”, “Roller Coaster”, “The Underground”) and several tunes that are such a whirlwind that they can’t help but entertain (“The Dream”, “Great Pets”). They get a lot of credit for knowing their way around a good hook (“Walk Away”, which benefits from having no chorus), and that’s really what sets any New Wave group apart from the pack. Minus points for originality as always, writing songs that can be described as “The Buggles play My Sharona” (“Great Pets”). It’s always a slippery slope with that kind of thing; you get away with knicking a few riffs here and there on your first album, and before you know it you’re rewriting “Girl U Want” with a different set of lyrics (“Position of Love”, thankfully not appearing here). Most of their career has been a big game of “spot the reference” anyway, so if it didn’t bother you then it probably won’t now. Either way it’s entertaining to hear all these songs with the big orchestral arrangements. Perhaps a bit Disneyesque in spots but I think Christophersen does a good job overall, not overpowering things outside of the big crescendos (“Roller Coaster”). They don’t exactly make me want to delete the originals off my hard drive but sometimes the extra bombast works well.
Anyway, it all holds together pretty well until the musical part takes over, at which point it gets a lot more baffling. You get the sense everything here was put together fairly quickly; in addition to the constant New Wave references they also quote other musicals and old Datarock songs. Not a lot of actual songs – “The Mananger” is a chorus without much else, “Magazines & Hall of Fames” sounds like an extended intro to “The Pretender” (which doesn’t appear here), “Minneapolis” just a big ol’ jam on “Funkytown”. At some point the schmaltz takes over entirely; sad little snippets of dialogue over piano and violin, quite frankly I’m not sure what’s going on here, and I don’t think the band is really taking it seriously either (“I think I’m going to throw up now”). But the gist is this, Freddy misses his kids and doesn’t quite become the big star he dreamed of, so he decides to go back to Nowhere (aka Norway) to win back his family, secure in the knowledge that they already played all the big cities, so in some way, The Dream actually came true. So yes, quite autobiographical, and perhaps an explanation as to why they haven’t done a whole lot of music lately.
Sadly this means there probably won’t be another album anytime soon (2018 update: luckily, I was wrong about this), especially given the complete lack of publicity Datarock the Musical has gotten – it’s been two weeks since its release and there isn’t an entry for it on RYM or Discogs (Discogs has since added it – RYM has still not), much less a single review anywhere I can find. I mean it really wasn’t that long ago since Pitchfork covered the band fairly regularly, and I remember hearing “Fa-Fa-Fa” a lot back in ’07 and ’08, so it’s weird to see them completely fall off the map like this. Some of that is their fault of course, they still haven’t written a proper album since Red and haven’t toured outside of Norway in a long time. But I hope they stick around, because at the end of the day there aren’t a whole lot of groups who nail the spirit of this sound quite like Datarock does.