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all photos: Shauna Alexander
all words: Phil Runco

The Radio Dept.’s recently-released (and excellent) singles collection comes stamped with a near perfect title: Passive Aggressive.  It’s more an admission than anything else; an acknowledgment from a band that would rather let songs trickle out via EPs and compilations and digital singles than face heightened scrutiny of a full-length.  To wit: The Radio Dept. took four years to follow up 2006’s Pet Grief, recording over a hundred songs, and, in the end, gave us a mere 10 songs and 35 minutes of music.  But those 35 minutes of Clinging to a Scheme (2010) were lush and beautiful and seemingly effortless, so I’m not complaining.  I’m just saying.  Two can play this game of passive aggression.

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The Radio Dept.’s passive aggressive streak runs deeper than its preferred methods of distribution though.  It’s in the music itself.

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On Tuesday night at the Rock N Roll Hotel, the Swedish trio opened with “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” and, a song later, “The New Improved Hypocrisy”.  The former was a relatively punchy song for the band, indebted to the baroque dance pop of the Pet Shop Boys, while the later was much steadier number, gently propelled by a locked-in motorik beat.  Over these canvases was laid the hushed, intimate vocals Johan Duncanson, who after more than a decade behind a microphone still emotes with the urgency of a sedated Stuart Murdoch.  The fey, somewhat dispassionate delivery belies the fact these two songs are more than wistful musings: they’re scathing criticism of the conservative Swedish government.  You’d be excused for not picking up on this; like the best passive aggressors, the Radio Dept. don’t exactly make their vitriol apparent.

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In fact, the Radio Dept. doesn’t show much in the way of emotion at all.  All three members maintained a stoic composure throughout the sold-out performance, only Duncanson occasionally acknowledging the crowd with an expression of gratitude.  Illuminated only by a wash of muted red from behind, the Radio Dept. quite literally lived up to its reputation as a band uncomfortable in the spotlight.

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The hour-long set was thus all steely professionalism, which, coupled with a reliance on programmed backing tracks – the band tours without a drummer – often left songs with a decidedly stale aftertaste.  It didn’t help that the band’s reliance on digital assistance was thrown into an unflattering light early, as the some sort of short circuit a minute into “This Time Around” forced the band reboot the backing track – and therefore the entire song – from scratch.

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Moving past that snafu, the Radio Dept. did pull off most of Clinging to Scheme’s songs convincingly.  The liquid groove of “David” snapped some life into the set on the heels of the restrained “The New Improved Hypocrisy”.   “Never Follow Suit”, a song that co-opts the spacey bounce of Moon Safari, slinked along on the strong synths and piano of keyboardist Daniel Tjäder.   “Heaven’s on Fire” – perhaps the band’s best song to date – wasn’t quite as successful, feeling a bit timid in comparison to its recorded counterpart.

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Much of the set, however, favored the band’s more downtempo past.  Old favorites like “The Worst Taste in Music”, alongside similarly lithe newer entries “You Stopped Making Sense” and “Domestic Scene”, took on a hymnal quality.  Tjäder swathed layers of swoony synths over the songs, sometimes drowning out the subtly of Duncanson’s guitar.  The Radio Dept. didn’t seem to register the crowd’s disinterest in such minor statements, continuing on despite the increasing buzz of the chattering audience.

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Young Prisms opened the night, borrowing the Radio Dept.’s guitars after drunkenly leaving its own in Philadelphia the night before.  Doing those instruments proud, band struck a similar dreamy chord to the Radio Dept., combining the skyward pop with Loveless shoegazing, not unlike Citrus-era Asobi Seksu.  Stefanie Hodapp lacks the vocal charisma of Yuki Chikudate though, and the band was at its strongest when she let the guitars do the singing.

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