There’s a number of ways one could take a band like Family Force 5—a “crunk” band turned dance machine—that are not exactly positive. They make music that is preposterously silly and ripe for disparagement, even if you’re inclined to like it. After all, this seems like the kind of glam music that’s sheen will wear with time, revealing the whole concept’s inner disposability. Nobody was looking for Christian dance music anyway (remember, Christians don’t dance, even if they pretend they do). But you take what you’ve given. In this case what’s been given is a mixture of navel-gazing pop of the Maroon 5-lite variety and authentic, convincing dance music.
Dance or Die works best when it’s equally in the thralls of dance conventions—heavy synthesizers, thick beats, 200 variations of filtered vocals within a three minute span—and its more modern, misplaced elements. “Get Your back of the Wall” delights in mixing dance music with grungy screamo: one moment robot voices are droning on about getting your back off the wall, the next moment the band is screaming about it. Similarly, the somewhat annoying but probably brilliant “D-I-E 4 Y-O-U” (yet another homage to dance music’s Sesame Street-sanctioned tradition of spelling things out) consists of both screaming and spelling the song’s title, set to the background of heavy distortion.
The opposite end of the spectrum—electronica-tinged pop music with whiny, saccharine lyrics—is markedly less enjoyable. Not that I don’t enjoy high-strung pop songs with lyrics like “How in the world did I find someone like you?” and pleas for acceptance from the boy band crowd like “You’ve already broken my heart/I’d like to keep at least one piece/You can take all that you want/But you’re gonna have to share it with me.” Seriously. If I want to listen to N*Sync, I’ll just listen to N’Sync.
Thankfully songs like “Party Foul,” (which is anything but) deliver deliciously ridiculous lyrics that seem to have an ironic appreciation for the Jonas Brothers (said social faux pas involves “hitting on my girlfriend,” for example). And the rapid-fire, heavily synthesized vocals are so entertaining I’ll look over the album’s radio-friendly pop acceptance speech. As on the EP, “Wake the Dead,” is a highlight. Sounding something like a rock band breathing synthesized fire, it’s an intoxicating mixture of pinpointed, perfectly-timed rock (it even closes with a brief, very 80’s guitar riff) and the band’s most singable chorus. It’s also one of the moments where we get something that is more than a capable-but-superficial melding of genre: Family Force 5 transcends its abundantly apparent influences.
Dance or Die has its share of thinly veiled references to the band’s Christian faith. But this is dancefloor material, so the band smartly keeps most of it under the surface. Anytime you catch an overtly Christian turn of phrase—“Wake up the dead now,” “we are the chosen nation!”, “I die for you!”—it’s in the context of music outrageous enough to let us pass by the propaganda. Lyrics in dance music are virtually thrown-on accessories anyway, and it’s no different here (though some of the lines are a bit cleverer than you might expect).
This hokey spaceship loses direction on a couple of murky breakdowns, but ultimately the band is a unique enough presence in both the Christian and mainstream markets to overlook their schmaltzy pandering; that is, Dance or Die is more a foretaste of Family Force 5’s bright future than an entirely coherent album. But it is intermittently brilliant, which may be as good as saying it’s the best Christian album of the year.
Timothy Zila is a Patrol music critic.
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