The sound of French Kicks isn't one that comes easy, precisely because it barely comes at all. Compared with the post-punk thrashing of fellow New York scenesters the Strokes, the Kicks' breathy harmonies and subtle guitars barely register as a whisper—a fact that some critics have confusingly chosen to exploit as a weakness.
No matter. While the Strokes have managed three albums in between fits of carousing and dating celebrities, the Kicks have quietly put out five albums in the same eight years. Their latest, Swimming, is their most broad and brilliant release yet—broad in banks of vocal harmonies, echoing percussion, and studio resonance; and brilliant in that the band seem only to expand on their best quality: deceptive simplicity. Swimming is the neon glow and back-room necking of the New York nightlife told in landscape. Opening anthem "Abandon" hums along with jocular handclaps, thumping bass and percussion, and woozy vocal layering, with lyrics about blood on the love tracks. Songs like "Over the World" and "The Way You Arrive" follow much the same formula, with subtle variations of hammer-dulcimer guitar and synth flourishes, creating beautifully textured four-minute echo chambers of sound.
And that's all the Kicks really seem to need to create stunning pop songs. See "Said So What" for white Motown, and "With the Fishes" for an underwater calypso jam that sounds like it was recorded in 1970 (a good thing for a band that plunders the best parts of that pop era). Lead singer Nick Stumpf prefers the sky-hooked croon rather than the slam-dunk rock vocal, which can sometimes wear on the ear but more often than not carries the song. Swimming is French Kicks' first self-produced affair, which can sometimes translate to self-congratulatory. Fear not. This is the sound of a group of savvy musicians who, after years of cultivating a sound, have finally found the means to put it in the pool and let it swim—proving that the most rewarding music is found underneath the surface.