My introduction to The Radio Dept. came with last year’s dreamy Clinging To A Scheme (crowned 7th best album of 2010 in TLOBF’s poll). The band has, however, been around since 2001 and Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 seems likely aimed at familiarizing new fans like me to the band’s past work. Clinging to a Scheme is a near-brilliant work of pop songwriting and in vogue shoe-gaze stylings. Throughout the album the band found ways to be surprising and inventive while staying in its comfortable niche. The songs on Passive Aggressive share that album’s aesthetic but if you were hoping for 25 more tracks of equal brilliance you’ll be a little let down. The compilation doesn’t document the evolution of a band so much as it highlights the sharpening of songwriting that seemingly occurred around Clinging To A Scheme. As such, Passive Aggressive is ultimately an album that is enjoyable while it’s on but forgettable when you’re through.
The inclusion of Clinging To A Scheme’s ‘David,’ ‘Never Follow Suit’ and (in particular) ‘Heaven’s on Fire’ will be welcome to someone on their first date with the band, but otherwise is a reminder that nothing on here is as memorable or compulsively re-listenable. Still, there are some definite highlights. Last year’s internet release, ‘The New Impoved Hypocrisy’ radiates a warmth that is undercut by the song’s biting political critique. The song builds a bed of gently propulsive drums and warm bass before layering on soaring synths and a simple, repeated guitar part. The band has mastered the use of space and when the collected noise comes to a smooth stop and we’re left with a simple, questioning melody – the effect is gorgeous. Elsewhere, ‘Freddie and The Trojan Horse’ captures the skittishness of a Cure song by starting with an urgent beat and leaving the other instruments slightly rhythmically askew. ‘This Past Week’ offsets lead singer Johan Duncansen’s depressed vocals with an almost tropically cheerful and unchanging synth line to create something wonderful melancholy sounding. With a 28 track length, these great moments get a little lost. It’s not that there are bad songs here – there’s really nothing that makes you hit the skip button – but the downside of The Radio Dept.’s gentle approach to pop music is that when it doesn’t work it can simply come off as bland.
If you’re hoping to dig deeper into The Radio Dept.’s catalogue this is a good place to start. While the consistent quality of the band’s output is impressive, this collection won’t send you searching out the full-length albums. That being said, the hopeful takeaway from Passive Aggressive is that The Radio Dept. seem to be reaching a creative peak. We should look forward to hearing the next eight years’ worth of singles.