Robots in Disguise, Happiness v Sadness

Written for Wears the Trousers 19.07.11

Dee Plume and Sue Denim return with their fourth studio outing, another of the increasing number of albums funded by fans through the Pledge Music scheme. It’s a testament to the enthusiastic loyalty that Robots In Disguise can command that they have a following prepared to keep the faith when the mainstream industry isn’t. And, you know, why should it be? The pseudonymous duo are an intensely idiosyncratic band, still ploughing their furrow of superior electro-punk, with occasional shades of a sharper-toothed, steelier Shampoo, faux-naif femme fatale Claire Grogan, or a Fisher-Price Kills. Their music is curiously compelling more than it is kitsch or cutesy, though, and their chosen personas are insouciant, no-nonsense and utterly unafraid of independence.

Happiness V Sadness opens with first single ‘Chains’, a song built around hammer blows of percussion and a rising moan that shimmers like a heat haze. The smokily echoing backing, coupled with pained call-and-response vocals, gives the impression of Robots In Disguise as convicts on a chain gang, sentenced to perform. This is typical of their preoccupation with deconstructing and playing with the experience both of being women and of being women in a band, but their self-awareness never comes off like a suffocating shroud of irony – more a conspiratorial wink tossed over the shoulder.

The music is familiar enough, powered by splashes and pulses of electro while Plume and Denim’s vibrant and flexible voices, polished to a piercing sharpness, stretch and pop and snap like bubblegum around the industrial pounding of the drum machine. The squeaky clean production means that much of the music here feels too slick and glossy to hold any deeper meaning, but the band’s sheer punk glee in making a racket can cover up the album’s degree of complexity. The standout title track, for instance, has a glitzy backing that flickers and flashes like a pinball machine, sounding distractingly busy while the vocal keeps itself fretfully focused on making sense of mental highs and lows and their pathologising. The whole of Happiness V Sadness veers between these two emotional extremes, swinging from compassionate cynicism on ‘Sink In The Dirt’ to admirable mock arrogance on the triumphant closer, ‘Winner’.

The ten songs here sound bitesize, quick blasts of stridency that bounce in, accomplish what they came for, then making a break for it, fuelled by an infectious verve and energy. ’Sorry’ explores the pantomime of female self-effacement and apologetics, while ‘Hey Watcha Say’ burlesques the anxiety and uncertainty that love provokes, its delicate balance finally collapsing into a frenetic, clattering coda. The messages of empowerment and affirmation they push are resolutely, unsexily sensible, and their lyrical critiques – of tabloid hacks and online gossipmongers in the skewed guitar scribbles of ‘Lies’, relationship breakdown on the swooning ‘Don’t Go’, or sexual predation on the horror-funk of ‘Lady & The Flies’ – are no less righteous for the obviousness of their targets. Forged with fierce self-possession, Happiness V Sadness is another measure of this band’s necessity.

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