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Folly and Caution
Barcelona: transHUMAN revolution
Barcelona were my choice for Best New Artist a couple years ago. You might think I'd remember why. I'd think I'd remember why. But I don't. Every time I get a new bit of Barcelona music I think "Ah, Barcelona, Best New Artist", then "Good, hollAnd is still producing them", and then some synapse misfires and I think "This will be intense." It never is. It never was, either. I like to think I usually take serious art more seriously than playful art (which isn't as tautological as it might sound), so some part of my mind keeps trying to save time by deducing that I liked Barcelona because they're stern and insightful, instead of actually going back and looking up the real reasons.
The real reasons, to pick some new ways of oversimplifying them, are fourfold: 1) Barcelona are ebulliently playful. 2) They are ebulliently playful in ways unabashedly specific to a narrowly focused demographic in whose exact center I happen to sit, having grown up as an introspective geek during the right years to have formative experiences with pre-standardization computers and pre-Pro-Tools electronic music and go on to liberal-arts education and a career in software. 3) Although there's rarely that much going on in their music, it always sounds to me like they're having fun making it. 4) And every once in a while, just when I've reconciled yourself to the idea that they're only going to amuse me, they say something memorably poignant or plaintive.
Arguably, at least this time, Barcelona deserve some of the blame for the initial state of my expectations. This third album is called transHUMAN revolution, and the package art is all photo-collages in which robots have insinuated themselves into primitive humans' tribal rituals. An uninformed observer might reasonably, I think, expect some level of socio-cultural analysis of the role of machines in human affairs. The thirteen-second introductory track, all crashing drums and primal chanting, gives way to jittery synth bleats, setting up the apposition. Trenchant observation must be mere moments away.
Except I know perfectly well that that isn't Barcelona's style. I also happen to recognize the particular chanting, and know the band's hobbies, well enough to guess that it's a Screaming Eagles field-recording from a DC United game. (A come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Metrostars on a Wednesday night in June, it turns out, a game most notable, statistically, for closing-stages sub Chino Alegria managing to get himself ejected after being in the game for only one minute.) So when the scratchy guitar segues to Jason Korzen, in that metallic vocal tone Trevor Kampmann adores, confessing "Everything makes me think about sex, / Everything makes me feel sick", I finally snap back into context and remember what we're doing here. We are having geeky fun. We are laughing at ourselves for being uptight, over-analytical kids raised in dull suburbs. We are trying to remember how easily we were amused, just a few weeks ago. We are trying to justify being petulant about the change of seasons.
And if there's one profoundly fortunate way in which Barcelona unknowingly anticipated how much grimmer a world this uncluttered little record would emerge into, it's that the album is short. Even with the snippets of soccer chanting at the beginning and end, it still squeaks by in less than half an hour. Surely that's little enough to ask. We can escape from anything for half an hour, can't we? Isn't that one of the fundamental principles of Western entertainment media? Eleven songs, then, of jubilant minutiae. "Everything Makes Me Think About Sex" is burbly and charmingly clueless. "West Coast Radio" is beepy, muted and timid, the East Coast geek's confused version of "California Girls" in which the babes are incomprehensible and frightening. "Watching You Watching Us" flips from spare, nearly Krautrock-esque verses to smooth, sighing choruses. The pulsing "Human Simulation" skips a step and lets Kampmann fiddle with things the way he probably would have in a remix. "Teenage Pop Star" is a deadpan galloping low-fi two-minute pop gem. "Fleeting Fame" is more measured, keyboard hooks tracing New Order's silhouettes; the instrumental "April 1978" reaches back a little farther. "I Get the Message" is languid and sad, "Beautiful" like John Hughes soundtrack pop banged askew. "Planet Jerk" might be Barcelona's impersonation of an exhausted B-52's.
But my expectations for Barcelona, right when they've been brought back down to their proper level, soar off again on the final track. With indie patriarch Archie Moore on hand to keep hollAnd away from his gadgets, the band leans into a choppy, blaring guitar-pop rant and Jen Carr gets a lead-vocal turn nobody tries to idealize the impishness out of. The text, appropriately, is a mocking, superhero-ish self-aggrandizement called "The Power of Jen" that I'm guessing Jason wrote, and maybe had to trick Jen into losing a bet to get her to sing. "But you should have known, / Yes you really should have known better: / You shouldn't ever underestimate a Jennifer, / Cause you'll find out that if you do / I got no choice but to destroy you!" They have resurrected such a harmless, hopelessly outdated idea of animosity and conflict that for a moment I feel like I've dreamed all of this, that these realized nightmares have somehow been banished back to sleep, and the Godzilla costume is hanging over a chair where we left it. The song doesn't last three minutes, the spell even less than that. But everything that reminds us what it felt like is a step on the road back.
bis: Return to Central
If, like me, you grew up far enough out of the way that New Wave only really reached you during its commercial second phase, circa "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Rio" and "Take On Me", then it's easy to forget how much strangeness the movement skittered through on its way to accessibility. A recent spate of turn-of-the-Eighties reissues has just been reminding me. With a time-machine at your disposal you could easily staff a perverse anti-nostalgia tour with well-known Eighties chart-hit bands plucked instead out of the clanging, experimental days before their commercial breakthroughs: early Simple Minds, Split Enz, Human League, Joy Division, Ultravox, Roxy Music, Modern English, Talk Talk. This is useful context for the third proper album in bis' erratic, EP-laced catalog, Return to Central. Social Dancing, the second, and last year's EP Music for a Stranger World, seemed to point along an ascendingly expansive neo-New-Wave trajectory; the new album's title implies a retreat of sorts, but instead of retreating towards their own childhood-fetishizing past (of which I was not personally all that fond), the record finds them poking around in other people's. The unsteady male vocals on the skeletal verses of the surging "Silverspoon" sound like an attempt to extrapolate a Joy Division for ABC's New Order. "The End Starts Today" crashes from simmery, Curve-like loops into waves of coy grandeur à la Frankie Goes to Hollywood (or maybe not-so-coy grandeur à la Propaganda). The thumping "Protection" sounds to me like a darker, busier, modernized Eurogliders or Parachute Club. The atmospheric "Two Million" is something like a Depeche Mode song with late-Gary-Numan drum loops, or a Garbage song with Rasputina's soul. "Metal Box" is a fragmentary instrumental they might have swiped from Neu. "We're Complicated" flexes a goth-skirting lineage from Curve and Propaganda through the Pet Shop Boys and My Life Story. Parts of the springy "Robotic" could probably be used to repair damaged copies of Age of Consent. "What You're Afraid Of" is one of the few songs for which the line-drawing of a DJ on the album cover is appropriate, a slinky, beat- and beep-heavy murmur into and out of which elements of the arrangement snap with a turntablistic abruptness. "Chicago" is probably the only other one, twitchy drum-and-bass rhythms under "Shell Shock"-esque synth loops and a vocal that seems somehow poised on the event horizon between Andy Bell and Trent Reznor. And then the album ends, with a spacey mostly-instrumental seemingly borrowed from XTC, and I realize I'm still waiting for something to begin. All eleven of these songs sound to me like supporting tracks, but the redemptive pop songs they would support are nowhere to be found. And while I've found a way to not mind, imagining this as the early album in a New Wave past bis never actually had, that will only work until (and if) the next one comes around and starts moving in some direction I can think of as forward again.
The Faint: Danse Macabre
If real-life ugliness turns out to decrease our collective appetite for fake, mannered ugliness in music (which I'm not counting on), then there may be a brief commercial window of opportunity for the Faint, originally known to me, in the reverse of the more likely exposure order, as the band Clark Baechle joined after Park Ave. Their second record, (blank-wave arcade), was neo-New-Wave I tended to lump in, mentally, with Wolfie and Mathlete, although the Faint seemed to take their pretensions (and their gear) a lot more seriously. On Danse Macabre they've gone a step further and made what I'm inclined to think of as the record Nine Inch Nails could have made (and would probably have been better off making) if Trent Reznor had been comfortable enough with himself to ditch the cyber-punk bluster and accept his natural role as the aesthetic link from Depeche Mode's gloom to EMF's mania, and/or "The Politics of Dancing"'s goofiness to Orgy's coifed solemnity. Drum machines, synth basses, vocoders and pitch-bend wheels are present in gleeful abundance, and although I readily admit I have so far felt no strong compulsion to find out what these songs are about (especially as I have a bad feeling there's plenty of ugliness lurking there, lack of NIN performance histrionics notwithstanding), nor to learn to distinguish them from each other beyond "the one in the middle that reminds me unpleasantly of 'The Lovecats'" and "the others", I'm actually quite happy to listen for thirty-five minutes without thinking too hard. For that long, at least, drum machines, synth basses, vocoders and pitch-bend wheels are enough.
The Human League: Secrets
I'll admit, though, that these neo-New-Wave bands seemed to me to be filling a more important role before, on a whim, I bought the new Human League album. Only the ability to hum "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" and "Mirror Man" and a copy of their greatest-hits album kept me from qualifying, previously, as that most fair-weather of Human League fans, the one who has "Don't You Want Me" on Totally Awesome 80's and can only sing along with the first verse, but I very much want New Wave to be a living legacy, so I feel sort of obligated to try to keep up with whether the original practitioners are still plausibly practitioning it. The Human League's work rate declined rather precipitously after 1986 (just Romantic? in 1990 and Octopus in 1995, neither of which I paid any attention to), but the same core trio, Philip Oakley, Joanne Catherall and (modulo name changes) Susan Anne Gayle, has been together since Dare! in 1981, and even spare keyboardist Neil Sutton is now an eleven-year veteran. The standing criticism of the later Human League records was that the band never learned any new tricks, but Secrets strikes me as a nearly ideal compromise between first principles and new possibilities. The trio's trademark, the interchange of Oakley's clipped lead with Catherall and Gayle's cool backing vocals, remains an uncannily convincing demonstration, in my opinion, of how critical two members can be despite having, if you judge by the credits, almost no creative involvement in the music. None of these songs attempt to replicate the dialogue effect of "Don't You Want Me", but the singers do trade lines in verses of "All I Ever Wanted", and trade roles entirely (the women taking lead, Oakley backing) for "Never Give Your Heart", and even, or perhaps especially, on the songs where the two women only barely coalesce in the choruses, they are still constant implied presences, flanking Oakley like peculiarly laissez-faire guardian angels.
Secrets has, for me, three great virtues, but I'm aware my explication of the first two may verge on "half the songs are great, and so are the other half." The first is that not a one of the nine vocal tracks seems in any way sub-par or expendable to me. "All I Ever Wanted" is buoyant and inexorable, the false choruses in an ABABC structure helping send the actual choruses along particularly elegant arcs. "Love Me Madly?" leaps from groaning verses to pinging choruses with the aplomb of Jesus Jones, and a few of the silly rhymes (notably "I'm tethered to a trainee hellcat; / I'm feeling jealous of the doormat" and "You're like a cocktail-set Attila, / A kind of Holland Park guerilla", especially when I notice that the printed lyrics have "halcyon" for "Holland Park" in the latter) make me smile involuntarily. The nicely understated "Shameless" reminds me of both Gardening by Moonlight and Yaz. The shivery (and again Jesus Jones-ish) "Never Give Your Heart" manages the grace of a ballad without having to give up pace or drums. "The Snake", another three-stage composition with Oakley's muttering, echoey entreaties from the women and an expansively stomped chorus not that far from a post-techno "Safety Dance", seems to me to have great down-cycle club potential. "Liar" could easily amount to a cynical sequel to "Love Action (I Believe in Love)", if by "easily" we mean "if, like me, you have accidentally merged your memories of 'Love Action' and the Eurogliders' 'No Action'". The fluttery "Reflections" opens with the great descending cadences of "Outside the last remaining shadows of the day too vague to make out, / De Chirico has packed his case and left, abandoning his stake-out", edges sideways to "Who else amongst the dancing crowd can share the sense that we are falling?", and then lapses into a creepy exchange in which a sinister narrator mumbles "Demons of the mind" and is echoed breathily by the women. "Sin City" and "You'll Be Sorry" could be a new generation's answers to "Funkytown" and "Electric Avenue", although I guess you'll have to decide for yourself whether that counts as a gift.
Interspersed with the nine vocal tracks on this sixteen-track album are seven heavily programmed instrumentals. I'm not in favor of this tactic as a general rule, particularly when there's no obvious conceptual point to the interludes, and here the instrumentals aren't even remotely different enough in style from the vocal tracks to change the genre of the record. Their redeeming virtue, for me, is just that I like them. A lot. As a set they immediately join the Assembly's "Stop/Start" and a handful of Simple Minds and Gay Dad tracks on my very short list of rock instrumentals by non-instrumental bands that I appreciate as songs, and if Catherall and Gayle bail out on him, Oakley could probably have a fine second career picking up all the amphitheater/laser-show/cultural-expo gigs Jean Michel Jarre turns down.
Which brings me to the third great virtue of Secrets, which is best encapsulated by a picture. Not the carefully posed lip tableau on the cover, and not the heavily overwrought individual portraits at the front of the booklet, but the three-quarters-length group photo opposite the credits. They're still voguing, still made-up from the same photo-shoot as the others, still dressed in clothes I doubt they wear at home. It's possible they think they look unchanged, just as glamorous now as they were twenty years ago, when their glamour was part of the performance. But what comes off as laughable posturing in the head shots (the dark-haired one looks like she's in the middle of a back spasm, and Oakley appears to have just inadvertently swallowed a vole) falls apart when the camera pulls back. Oakley's still scowling, but you can see one of his hands by his side, oblivious to the act. The blonde one's leather dress, after perhaps a little too much time under the lights, is starting to do weird things. The dark-haired one's shirt needs adjusting. Despite their best efforts to look like stars, in this picture they look like grown-ups. They're trying to look one kind of ridiculous, risking looking another, and to me they are left with dignity. And likewise the record, aspiring to currency and risking irrelevance, falls gracefully into the space in between, where everything real ends up, dancing.
Curve: Gift
But my favorite triumph of perseverance, at the moment, is Gift, the fourth studio album by the ten-year-old duo Curve. They're much younger than the Human League, and haven't been away as long (Come Clean, their third album, came out in 1998, although unlike the Human League they were officially broken up for a few years before that), but even I, who like them a lot, have historically conceded that all their good songs sound the same. I once claimed I'd learned to distinguish the songs on Cuckoo from the ones on Dopplegänger, but I just ran a blind test on myself and failed it. The second half of Come Clean struck me as an egregious mess, and since then my ongoing resentment of Garbage on Curve's behalf has been the only active manifestation of my support for them. I didn't even know this new record was coming, and with the new Garbage album coming out I should at least have checked.
And yes, the new songs still sound like Curve, densely atmospheric, obdurately mechanical and cartoonishly grim, a My Bloody Valentine/Sisters of Mercy truce mediated by Tori Amos. Maybe a little of the jackhammer intensity of their earliest songs has morphed into twitchiness under market pressures, but not much. They still slam and churn, the noises less performed than channeled. MBV guitarist Kevin Shields appears in person, as well as in spirit, playing extra guitars (of course) on a couple songs, and MBV producer Alan Moulder, Dopplegänger/Cuckoo producer Flood and ex-Depeche Mode keyboardist Alan Wilder all have cameos as well. Mostly, though, it's Dean Garcia's indefatigable drum programming and heaving bass, and Toni Halliday's textural guitar noise and pensive voice, like it's always been.
Somewhere over the course of the last three years, though, Dean and Toni learned to write, or perhaps just to arrange, pop songs. There were melodies in their compositions all along, but to me it always sounded like in the mixing stage they came to a moment of truth, when they had to decide which fader to push on, and they invariably opted to pull the vocals down just under the surface of the music. They do the same thing on the smeared and pounding "Hell Above Water", the opening track here, and again on the humming "Bleeding Heart", the closer, but in between it finally occurs to them that Halliday is a better singer than Shirley Manson, so maybe they should give her a chance to carry some of these songs. She breaks out a melancholy fade for the slow, grinding "Polaroid"; a "The Dreaming"-era Kate Bush-like brassiness for a few key moments in the clattering "My Tiled White Floor"; a touch of Tori's YKTR flair for the whirring "Fly With the High"; a dreamy lilt for the keening "Chainmail"; a distracted whisper for the ticking "Hung Up". "Gift" itself reverts to Halliday's familiar low-range/high-range auto-duet, but lays a quick, sputtering rhythm and careening guitar under it.
But the two songs that elevate the whole album, for me, are tracks three and four, "Want More Need Less" and "Perish". These happen to be the two Shields plays on, but I can't decide whether I think they're the album's most uplifting songs because he's playing on them, or whether Garcia and Halliday had him play on these particular two because they were the album's most uplifting songs. "Want More Need Less" is the more classically Curve-like of the two, Garcia's bass roaring up and down slow, droning scales while the drums piston, Halliday pushing against the pressures in order to stay in place. "Perish" is the one with a tiny chance of standing up to Garbage, the one on which Dean and Toni let the noise stop a few times, so that when it comes back in on the chorus it feels like a sea change, not a subtle alteration in the composition of gale winds. It's a break-up anthem, or at least an imperiled-relationship song, but there is far too much rapture in the choruses for me to take them at their words. "Surely our souls will perish", Toni insists, but there's an "unless we..." afterwards she can't evade just by not singing it. And the synthesizers twitter at the end, like starlight. "We're staying together for the sake of our memories." But there are worse reasons. "I'm not ready." We never are. We take steps, never sure whether the ground will hold us, never sure whether we're walking into dawns or sunsets or light posts. We invent futures, despite rarely having enough information to know whether they'll be glittering or horrible, transformative or just distracting, because the alternative is an eternity in which to itemize the impossibilities we've already lived through.
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