The gorgeous yet disremembered music of the late '80s is as much of a leitmotif here as the title itself. Possibly a nod to the double "L" in each of the Go-Betweens' album titles before 16 Lovers Lane broke the string, Universe and Villa affords
a rich introduction to Stephen Becker and his band Le Concorde.
While the band's self-titled 2004 EP had reviewers, myself included, pulling
out records and references that were as fun to see in print again Prefab
Sprout, the Lilac Time, Aztec Camera and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as
they were a compliment to Becker's influences, the full-length not only affirms
but somewhat broadens the above list. Sure, starry-eyed averments such as "I
Will Go to My Grave Wanting You to Love Me" wouldn't be out of place in any of
Paddy McAloon's Prefab songbooks (or Eric Matthews' lush chamber-pop for that
matter). But what about the soaring near-end of "Controlling," which would be
like Ian Hunter's "You Nearly Did Me In" if not for Becker's glitter-rock falsetto
and guarded synth?
The emotional ballast of Becker's songwriting and, likewise, musical arrangements
appears in a fuller context as well. He allows that while much of the record
is influenced by the end of a marriage, it isn't a static meditation. Instead Universe
and Villa displays not only the disquieting efforts of examination but the
hope of finding love again. A personal undertaking to be sure, but instead of
being some overtly self-aware exercise, the songs encircle the listener with
a shared awareness, like remaining alive to the moment and holding close to its
possibilities. It is a province rarely explored in contemporary pop music, at
least to the degree that Becker does here, as quietly as he does it.
You only need to look at Nick Heyward's breaking solo turn North of a Miracle for an ideal example of understated introspection in the softest of voices. "Whistle Down the Wind" floats a chorus of "Hello, hello, hope you're feeling fine" and, elsewhere, "I want to watch you bloom and breathe." I can't help but be reminded of that song or even that record when listening to Becker's "Archeology of Cruelty," where the remains of a relationship are likened to an indelicate frieze, brushed and dated by those who don't know: "Do you keep souvenirs? / My discovery's recovery's not a / Given even after years / If they ask you lie and say it was nothing at all / If they ask you lie and tell them no one can recall / The vow."
Musicians lending Becker a hand here are the Epicycle team of Ellis and Tom Clark,
Eric Chial of the Bon Mots, Ed Tinley, Kevin Tihista and ex-Psychedelic Furs
members Mars Williams and John Ashton. Universe and Villa has a very definite
feel, with very little space between the end of singing and the elevation of
vintage synthesizers. But it doesn't sound like an aspect of control more
like an ease of command. Before this Becker played with the Chicago indie-pop
band Post Office, where the influences were, of course, pop, but not those heard
on Le Concorde. Here the atmospherics include wind effects, drums and programmed
drums and the Fender Jazzmaster, the whole of which manages to transport you
back to the likes of the adventurous yet heartfelt electronics of OMD's Architecture
and Morality without diminishing the very modern pop record it is.
Universe and Villa may even surpass the approved scrollwork of the EP with pop hits like "In the Morning," where Becker sings of sleeping "hand-in-hand with the keeper of the story." The guitar line is as infectious as his declaration. "I Hate Rock and Roll" is the only not-quite-there in evidence despite the lines "I want to want the things that I was born to want/ I want to love the things that I was born to love." But when emotion comes together so easily with music like this, only then do you realize just how exceptional that is.