Sometimes, very occasionally, the algorithm gets it right. In early 2017, my Spotify Discover Weekly threw up the debut single by an Australian pop quartet known as Confidence Man. “Boyfriend (Repeat)” was a proudly cheesy, incessantly catchy, posturizing piece of 90s-remiscent alternative dance. Built around a bouncy acoustic guitar line, burbling scale-playing modular synths which grew in volume as the song progressed, not one but two immensely fun group hooks, and completely detached too-cool-for-this vocals dressing down a boyfriend who just isn’t doing it; poor, overly talkative, a breakfast maker who doesn’t really pay attention to what she wants, a “repeat of what I’ve had before.” I was instantly hooked and spent weeks afterwards humming the song at all hours of the day.
More singles would trickle out as the year progressed and 2018 hailed the debut album, Confident Music for Confident People, with the overall sound and idea of the project fully coalescing. A deranged concoction of Screamadelica-era Primal Scream, the first Le Tigre album, and alternately Junior Senior or Right Said Fred depending on the track. Completely extra, cool in their refusal to ever be bothered by people calling them uncool, simultaneously ironic yet weirdly sincere, and just so so so damn fun. The band even came with a kayfabe backstory. Self-absorbed singer Janet Planet met super-talented producers and super-ugly guys Reggie Goodchild & Clarence McGuffie at a party, forcibly conscripting them to make her music whilst insisting they hide their hideous facial features behind all-black veils, with former pool-boy Sugar Bones lucking into being the fourth member entirely because of his looks. (In reality, all four are former faces of Australia’s psych-rock scene who grew bored making guitar music and got together to create fun dance-pop instead.)
Unsurprisingly, Confidence Man are not for everyone. The debut sets its stall out immediately with the opening line “I must confess/I’ve been sleeping with your ex cos I heard he was the best” and just blows on from there with Yello-ripped “zigga-AH!”s; a spoken-word number about “the party of the year” – it’s apparently better than the “one where a guy shoved a lightbulb up his ass” – and a spelling chorus; flute solos; an interlude which sounds like the intro to a late-80s/early-90s gameshow; and so many more affronts to good taste. I bloody loved it, it was my favourite album of the year with no real contest.
The secret to Confident Music’s success was simple: these were some spectacularly crafted fun pop songs with hooks for days. Long after the intentionally vapid lyrics for “Don’t You Know I’m In a Band” lost their humour, the squelchy bounce of those synths and wonky bleeps over the chorus kept charming. The trumpets on standout “Out the Window” beamed with triumphant summery sunshine. The gradual progression and layering of new sounds on “Sail Boat Vacation” turned an interlude into a deep-cut surprise hit. Even “Boyfriend” revealed an interesting complexity, about how obligated a woman can feel to stick out a relationship she’s not fully enamoured with, which further blurred the irony lines and made the song richer.
Much as I loved and continued to love that debut in the years which followed, it did come with one very precarious sword of Damocles swinging overhead that would eventually need answering. How long can this last? When a band bursts onto the scene making music this unashamedly ridiculous, where even people like me who go gaga for the kitsch can find themselves wondering how serious everyone involved is being, you don’t really expect them to stick around. Diminishing returns, try-hard-ness, novelty… Take your pick, but all of them are fatal bullets an act like Confidence Man has to be ready to dodge sooner or later. At the same time, though, that proud kitsch is one of the reasons why Con Man have built up a fanbase. Nobody wants them to morph into making RÜFÜS DU SOL records. How do you walk that tightrope? How do you not overthink yourself into the corner?
Arriving almost four years to the day of that debut, sophomore record TILT chooses to answer the question primarily by writing more great dance-pop songs. Although that’s not to say there hasn’t been a shift in sound to go along with it; comparing the openers to both albums makes this abundantly clear. Confident Music’s “Try Your Luck” was a brash blast of obnoxious maximalism lyrically revelling in being much too sexy for all these pathetic boys who just can’t help but get obsessed. TILT’s “Woman,” by contrast, is a slow-building deep-house throb with “Gypsy Woman” synth beds, clipped vocal loops – literally, you can hear where the samples cut in – and a confidently delivered spoken-word mantra rallying for female self-empowerment. (“I am a woman of many words/But words do not define me.”)
It’s not exactly a grower, a band like Confidence Man are fundamentally incapable of penning growers, but it does take more than a few listens to become an absolutely irresistible banger and for the Con Man-ness to seep on through. TILT leans heavier into the 90s house side of the outfit’s alt-dance DNA than their debut, which was more of a genre magpie pastiche where house was one ingredient rather than the primary aspect. Whilst there are more than a few other cool-ass deep-house exercises – “Luvin’ U is Easy,” “Break It Bought It,” “Relieve the Pressure” – the band do stay true to form by mining some of the less fashionable elements of the decade’s dance-pop. Eurodance, goofy big beat breaks, Sega Genesis/Saturn soundtracks, fashion runway music; a lot of this album sounds ideal for strutting on an exclusive and faintly-ridiculous Gucci runway.
“Angry Girl” is a full-on Basement Jaxx number built around a funky bass groove, accented with ceaseless cowbell, and snotty pinched vocals which climax in a stutter-delayed scream that would’ve fit perfectly on Jaxx’s “Do Your Thing.” If anything, whilst it’s somewhat of an outlier on the album surrounding it, the song functions as a perfect litmus test for Con Man in general. You’re either gonna boogie on down to the beat, flinging limbs and appendages in all directions when the steel drum breakdown hits, and scream along to the cartoonish yet honest expression of feminine anger… or you’re gonna barely tolerate the thing and then tap the fuck out once the track fakes an ending with an honest-to-God “NOT!” gag in the year of our lord 2022. Like I said, this band can be a lot in a way which is designed to polarise. You either get turned off, or you embrace it totally.
But, as mentioned, “Angry Girl”’s fearless obnoxiousness is somewhat of an anomaly on TILT. This isn’t to say that Confidence Man have lost the attitude or semi-ironic mean girl edge of their debut, but more that the music works to keep those lyrics in check this time. “Toy Boy” is, as you can probably tell from the title, a celebration of lusting over himbos whose bridge goes “with a face like that there’s no conversation/with an ass like that there’s no hesitation.” But rather than meeting that sentiment musically with a raucous Go! Team-esque cacophony of instruments, the band go for a minimal Ibiza chillout with alt-rhythm piano stabs which could almost be considered, whisper it, tasteful. According to press materials, TILT was significantly less fussed-over and looser in construction than their debut and one can definitely tell. The Sugar Bones-led “What I Like” illustrates that; even when layering on accentuating group vocal samples and flanged drums, it feels a lot more relaxed than something like “C.O.O.L. Party.”
Other times, though, the looser approach and shift away from kitsch can strip some of the Con Man identity out of the equation. Mid-album instrumental “Trumpet Song,” built around a looping horn sample, is undoubtedly catchy but never takes off from that initial start like the debut’s thematically similar “Catch My Breath” did, jogging in place for three-and-a-half minutes without really exploding. Worse, it hews a little too close for its own to good to the Kungs remix of “This Girl” by fellow Aussies, Cookin’ On 3 Burners. Similarly, “Push It Up” is too blatant of an Ace of Base and Howard Jones bite for me to get over, with the songwriting stagnating pretty quickly. On the bright side, these are misfires coming from the band trying things a little outside their usual wheelhouse. But, on the downside, they’re also misfires because I can picture any number of throwback dance acts assigning their names to the tracks.
By contrast, “Feels Like a Different Thing” has sonic elements of much of our current EDM pop crop – minimal repeated vocals grouped together to sound like a choir, major key piano chords, that bit just before the drop where the beat completely cuts out and slams back in a second later than expected – but the execution has the maximalist blast endemic to Confidence Man. (More breakbeat bridges, please!) “Luvin’ U is Easy” proves that the band can do something more heartfelt and sincere when called upon, gliding effortlessly over a gorgeous Balearic trance. Penultimate standout “Break It Bought It” is maybe the perfect summation of the album’s aims: relaxed and cool sonically, every additional element outside of the base synth bass and 808 preset seeming to just slot into place at the exact point it needs and not crowding the mix, whilst sassy and unapologetically cheesy in the diva-house spoken vocal delivery. It pushes Con Man’s sound without compromising their essence in the process.
Which is ultimately what TILT needed to do. By all means, a band like Confidence Man should have a short shelf-life, the candle which burns ultra-bright and flames-out at spectacular speed. With their sophomore album, the group let up a little on the concept and foreground their impeccable pop craftsmanship more, revealing that doing so doesn’t mean having to entirely give up the shameless fun and unique character that made them so enticing in the first place. They might even be in it for the long haul. They’ll be in my speakers for the Summer, at the very least.
TILT is available on digital, CD, and vinyl from Friday via Heavenly Recordings.
Words: Callie Petch