As it stands, it's hard to tell exactly what Radio 4 is singing about half the time. For a week, we were convinced "(No More Room For) Communication" was about the cancellation of RuPaul's chat show. Further listening might lead you to the erroneous conclusion that these lads must be right out of art school in the Sheppard's Bush, living in a squat somewhere near Warrington Crescent and trying to get on the dole.
It's easy to mistake this Long Island/Brooklyn trio for a group of Britons, given their BBC-like name, their obvious love for English combos Gang of Four, the Clash, the Jam and Magazine, as well as their odd pronunciations of words like "what" and "sure." But assuming a bit of a limey attitude is the best way to sing the kind of anthems of dispossessed youth the band specializes in.
Take a lone rhythm guitar that sounds like a lock being furiously picked and pit it against dub level bass 'n' drums and unison vocals and you've got a sound you forgot you missed hearing until you stumble on Radio 4's debut, The New Song and Dance. It's a style that the band members guitarist/singer Anthony Roman, bassist/vocalist Tommy Williams and drummer Greg Collins -- were too young to have experienced firsthand, but one they decided they could resurrect, seeing as their respective groups had just both broken up.
Of their pre-Radio 4 efforts, Roman describes Williams and Collins' Sleepasaurus as "poppy," and Garden Variety, "The band I was in, was rocky. Sometimes it was labeled 'emo,' which I didn't think was a fair description." The unlikely common denominator between the two camps happened to be Gang of Four, an outfit whose mix of sparse instrumentation and dance suited the power-trio format perfectly.
"We wanted to do something that would excite us and in turn excite the audience. So we all said, 'Let's do something in a Gang of Four vein,'" recalls Roman. "I didn't think so many people would comment on it. Actually, I'm a little surprised by that."
Wisely, Radio 4 steered clear of the Marxist rhetoric that tripped up every dogmatic punk group after the first big record company advance came in. "We're not that political. Most of our lyrics are social commentary but none of them are heavy-handed. We tried to keep a certain amount of light at the end of the tunnel. I think because the music's jagged, hard and a little dancey."
Do people actually dance at Radio 4 shows? "Yeah, especially the last tour, which is why we're excited to be going out with Dismemberment Plan," says Roman of the group's forthcoming winter trek with the Washington, D.C., quartet. "They have a crowd that dances. Not moshing, but dancing without bumping into each other. No one's beating anybody up or anything.
"Not a lot of people in the indie world are doing that," Roman continues. "We're not laid-back and we're not that loud. It's somewhere in between. A lot of the indie bands out now just sound so similar. There's no beat, there's no pulse, it just goes whining along. There's no reason for everything to be that way."
Oddly, Roman has found that some fans of The New Song and Dance are using the album as their own motivational tool, the same way athletes used to drop the needle on recordings of old Knute Rockne speeches.
"That's what everyone's saying -- 'Wow! It's so up,'" enthuses Roman, his voice jumping a few octaves to capture the excitement of a new recruit. "'I play it in the morning before I go to work. It gets me going.' It's an amazing concept," he adds, laughing. "Rock 'n' roll, punk rock, whatever -- it's supposed to get you going, not make you wanna hide in a corner.
"We're just listening to a lot of music that lends itself to that direction, stuff that's 'up' even when the lyrics are down. The Clash were good at that, getting you out on the dance floor and then telling you how bad everything was. A lot of techno stuff . . . there's really nothing happening lyrically, if there even are any lyrics.
"I think the combination of dance music and disseminating information that bands like the Clash and Gang of Four did was really unique. [Former Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna's] Le Tigre is a new band that's very good at getting you 'up,' even though she's talking about serious things. You can tune the lyrics out if you want to. It works on a couple of different levels, which music doesn't seem to be doing much of lately."
Two Radio 4 songs that beg interpretation on the eve of Decision 2000 include "Election Day" and "We Must Be Sure." To anyone with a healthy skepticism watching the lackluster presidential candidate debates, the latter's insistent Strummer/Jones-influenced chorus "We must be sure that we're bored by what you are saying" sounds like an appropriate mantra.
"That song says, 'We're bored with blatantly being lied to.' Politicians talk on TV and people get wrapped up in it. So you've got to make sure you're completely bored by their lying to you," rants Roman. "I always think of Clinton with his hand gestures and people saying, 'Oh, he means it.' He's a good public speaker, he's got his gestures down, and now Gore's doing them, too."
Another significant election taking shape this November, and one that will likely affect Radio 4 much more directly, is the tightly contested New York senatorial race between First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Rick Lazio. No longer in the running is Hizzoner, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who incurred the wrath of the group by shutting down a number of NYC clubs it called home. Already gone are such great Manhattan venues as Tramps and Coney Island High, where Radio 4 debuted last spring, opening for Valley residents Jimmy Eat World.
"Giuliani has a different vision of what New York should be like," says Roman, laughing, and recounts how the mayor turned the Times Square of Taxi Driver into an "I Love New York" Disneyland, making the streets safe from soft-pretzel vendors. "I always wonder what happened to all the drug dealers he ran out of Times Square when he pushed them out."
It seems few bands can afford to live in Manhattan these days, or record there, for that matter; the tracks for The New Song and Dance were laid down in a Brooklyn studio. Save for the occasional double-tracked vocal and the presence of a swirling organ on "Boy Meets Girl" -- the catchiest in a crop of catchy songs -- the album is an economical, live-in-the-studio affair. But how long can the band resist the temptation to flesh out its raw sound with superfluous horns and strings?
"We have to see where the next album is going to take us," says Roman. "There's certainly plenty of room to add different things -- keyboards, percussion, whatever."
Or perhaps the group will confound everyone anticipating that it'll follow the career blueprint of Gang of Four and the Clash by getting into rap and synths. How? By becoming even more minimal, kicking out the drummer and turning into acoustic aggit-rockers, à la Billy Bragg.
Whatever the future holds, it's still early in the game for the members of Radio 4, even though by music industry standards the mid-to-late twentysomethings are veterans -- or are they?
"I was reading an article in TV Guide about the boy bands, and I was looking at their ages," says Roman. "Those guys are like, 27 and 28! How can you be 28 and be all excited about being in 98 Degrees?
"If they're hitting on Britney Spears, that's baaad. I mean, they're the same age Chuck Berry was when he was too old to be messing with 'Sweet Little Sixteen.'"