On paper When Fish Ride Bicycles is the proper debut full length from the Chicago- and Detroit-based duo The Cool Kids. This only because, when their first release came out, 2008’s excellent The Bake Sale, the duo of Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks seemingly did not know the difference between a full-length release and an EP. We can only assume that, to The Cool Kids, a full-length album was 20 or so songs with lots of guests and intros and interludes, and an EP was something smaller (technically, an EP is an extended play single, or anything longer than two songs). And so the 10-song The Bake Sale (13 songs if you got the initial CD release) went down, foolishly, as the crew’s “debut EP,” making Fish their first proper LP following a slew of holdover mixtures and guest spots. Clocking in at 11 songs and only a few minutes longer than Bake, the record is, for the most part, a logical continuation of what the Kids were doing in 2008: simple beats, simple rhymes, lots of bass.The Cool Kids truly love the boom-bap era of hip-hop culture. Unlike Kayne, Doom, Common or any of those other schmoes who talk about “classic hip-hop” without ever really playing it straight, homage wise, Inglish and Rocks keep it real, building simple loop-based songs the same way Marley Marl or Pete Rock or Erick Sermon did back in the late 80s. They start with a break beat, add a bass loop and then ornament their rhythm sections with various samples and, eventually, vocals. The production is clean and simple, and the bass is loud and heavy, as it should be. The samples and loops come, mostly, from funk, soul and jazz records, natch. That the production on The Cool Kids releases is always so solid, so focused, is no surprise, as both Inglish and Rocks initially came together as two producers looking to sell beats to emcees. The focus on the new record, aside from the vocals and attention to pop appeal, is bass. Bass, so much so that you could almost file the record alongside all those generic bass compilations the white kids with expensive subwoofers bought in the late 90s.
While surely not great emcees, both Inglish and Rocks have taken steps forward here, vocally, offering the kind of performances that hip-hop fans are sure to memorize to near-Snoop-like degrees. Their voices strong and full of character, both emcees approach this part of their art in a way very similar to early EPMD, offering up simple writing, loads of hooks and plenty of attention to inflection and cadence. Also, they’ve invited quite a few friends along for the ride this time, including The Neptunes, Ghostface Killah, Bun B, Mayer Hawthorne, Chip tha Ripper, Boldy James, Tennille, Maxine Ashley and even Travis Barker (Blink-182) and Asher Roth (suburban Eminem clone). So, yes, you could say that The Cool Kids are taking a pop turn with this record, even going so far as to having the past-their-prime production team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo produce two of the beats for them. This, of course, makes no sense, as Inglish and Rocks are far better beat makers these days than those two.
But pop dreams in America are nothing new when it comes to modern day hip-hop. In order to find a wider audience The Kids signed with Green Label Sound, a record label owned and operated by … wait for it … Mountain Dew. The soda company. So, yes, that is a Mountain Dew logo you see on the cover of the record, shamelessly positioned in a way that’s supposed to come off as naturalistic in the scope of the cover art concept. And if the song “Swimsuits” sounds familiar to you, that’s because it can currently be heard in a television commercial for … wait for it … Mountain Dew. The soda. Sounds fishy, right? Well, damn. It’s the modern world, right? We’re living in a largely two-class system that’s reflected everywhere, including the modern music world. For the most part, you’re either Lady Gaga and getting wicked rich or you’re Sole and the Skyrider Band and sleeping on floors and collecting food stamps. Very few make it in the middle; with this Mountain Dew move we can only assume that The Cool Kids are not only trying to get their work out to more ears, but are also attempting to float above the poverty place to that Arcade Fire/Deerhunter/Doom level where they can quit their jobs and make a go at the Coldplay/Kanye/Bieber level. They’ll never get there with this new Neptunes-aping pop appeal, but I’m sure there’s a decent Dew check either in their future or their past.
If pressed to pick favorites on this ultimately frustrating record, I’d pick opener “Rush Hour Traffic,” Ghostface-collaboration “Penny Hardaway,” minimalist cut “Sour Apples” and some of the more soul-infused songs that incorporate some very 80s-sounding keys and synths. There are no standout tracks, no all-out lousy songs (though the Neptunes songs do drop in quality). Taken as a whole, When Fish Ride Bicycles feels far more unfocused than The Bake Sale, likely due to the unnecessary guest production, guest verses and Mountain Dew influence. Also, the occasional R&B hooks just don’t quite fit with the core duo’s throwback vibe. Hardly a bad record, When Fish Ride Bicycles just doesn’t live up to the great promise of the duo’s breakout EP. But hey, an ice cold Diet Mountain Dew Code Red sounds pretty refreshing right about now.
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