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Friday, August 9, 2002

++ Do You Want New Wave, Or Do You Want The Truth? Part 2: The Anxiety Of Influence

++ The new new wave, as you might expect, owes a significant debt to its predecessors. To be retro is to strike a careful balance, and the anxiety of influence hangs over every release. The trick, for many, is to sound neither too simulacral, nor too original. It's in this balance that the distinctions amongst the new crop of electroclashers and nu-wavers are to be found.

Cover songs have played heavily in the retro trend. Montreal's Tiga stepped out with one of the most audacious tributes to the early '80s when he took fellow Montrealer Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" and turned it into a club smash. (The original was an exercise in moody arpeggios and lyrics tailor-made for MTV, which was in its ascendance at the time. It was a mediocre pop song at best; having little stomach for camp, I can't decide whether the original's total aesthetic bankruptcy makes the remake more or less ironic.)

A more interesting remix comes from Alter Ego (AKA Roman Flügel, whose other alter egos include Eight Miles High, Soylent Green, Acid Jesus, and Sensorama), turning Human League's "All I Ever Wanted" into a grinding, acidic techno workout. No group lends itself to kitschification more than Human League, whose "Don't You Want Me Baby" conjures fond memories of birthday parties at the roller rink for legions of Gen-Xers. But instead of taking advantage of Human League's ironic appeal, Flügel takes the tarnish off the song and proves that even the most outmoded currency can buy more than novelty status. Sure, Philip Oakey's voice still risks sounding hokey, but there's a dulled, zombie-like insistence in the vocal treatment that makes his undead operatics more than a little spooky. And Flügel buffs up Human League's anemic sound, sculpting muscular snares, bulging bass squelch and tendon-strained synth pads into a pummeling, cyborg funk.

Another fine remix that manages to transcend its origins is Bis's recent rework of A Certain Ratio's "Shack Up," available on their "Plastique 33" single. The 1981 classic, in its original form, is a lurching, barely contained, post-punk beast, but in the hands of the Scottish trio it becomes a clean-lined model of beat-box efficiency and chrono-eroticism.

++ But then there are songs like those of Detroit electro act Adult., which sound like covers, even if they aren't — uncanny recreations of hits that never were. In a recent audio feature from the BBC on electroclash, the producers play Adult.'s tracks to original waver Gary Numan. "It's like being 18 again!" he exclaims. He continues, "I don't mean to be horrible, but it's what was in the early '80s. It could be anybody from the early '80s. If you wanted to sit down and copy it and do a really, really good job of sounding the way they did then, that's it. That's it!"

Adult. are analog fanatics and careful students of form, and they bring both tendencies to bear when they create their tracks, which at times sound like beat-by-beat recreations of the songs on records like Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell. To be fair, they do more than ape the hits of 20 years ago: as tracks like "New Object" attest, the duo excel at pairing the gritty feel of lo-fi new wave with the gutter-tech rhythms of vintage electro. Still, it's hard to escape a sense of déjà vu when listing to Adult., or indeed many of the artists on their label Ersatz Audio. Just check G.D.Luxxe's "Values," off the Ersatz Audio compilation Misery Loves Company. He rips his bassline straight from Joy Division, but the theft is nothing new — many of his record covers have been direct visual quotations of Factory's trademark designs.

G.D.Luxxe is not the only one to cop a little New Order attitude. "Still Love in the Midwest," the lead track off the debut album from Ghostly International's Midwest Product, is a dead ringer for New Order's output circa Low Life — the high-necked bass melodies, the wash of guitar, and the effects-laden drums make for a careful reconstruction of the Manchester quartet's trademark sound. All that's missing is Bernard Sumner's unmistakable voice, and you almost suspect that they left the song instrumental because they couldn't find a Sumner sound-alike. (In some ways it's an unfortunate choice of opening track, because the rest of the album Specifics shows that Midwest Product can be very much their own band, assimilating the obvious influences into an original new shape.)

++ Morgan Geist has also leaned heavily on New Order: his recent singles for Environ employed drum sounds reminiscent of their dry-ice snares and even sampled their unmistakable "vox" keyboards, but his tracks stand firmly on their own, incorporating electro-house and synthetic R&B influences to create a bright and shuddering brand of electro-house. Metro Area, his collaboration with Darshan Jesrani, is better yet, folding grainy synths, waxy handclaps, disco strings, and rubber-ball basslines into a potent mixture of Italo-disco, new wave and house. Each of the four Metro Area singles has come and gone quicker than a power surge, snapped up by DJs hip to the coveted series, but France's Source label will be releasing a CD collecting the best Metro Area singles tracks this fall, with four new songs to round out the package.

++ But the most skillful recycling at the moment might be coming from Coloma, a British-born duo now living in Düsseldorf. Signed to Mathias Schaffhäuser's Ware label, they've released one single and one full-length, but have yet to gain much attention. So when they appeared on Sónar's outdoor stage this year, their sweet electro-pop stylings came like a bolt from the blue for many in the audience, who stood with smiles fixed to their face as they soaked up Coloma's cool, retro melodics. Singer Rob Taylor — whose voice recalls British crooners like Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville, and David Gahan — faced the crowd like a cheerier Ian Curtis, long and narrow; clad in sand-colored silk, he was earth to Curtis' gray ash, a veritable Phoenix from gloom-pop's pyre.

Coloma's album Silverware comes off as an update of Depeche Mode's Black Celebration, using similar keyboard sounds, stunted drum machines, and vocal effects. (The album also owes a considerable debt to Martin Gore's fantastic Counterfeit LP.) But Coloma's recording rises above the level of pastiche thanks to its impeccable production, which shakes off the burden of its influences while maintaining their spirit. Indeed, half the pleasure of the album is the way Taylor's voice is constantly flitting backwards, pointing to his predecessors, while Alex Paulick's arrangement of organ, guitars (including lap steel guitar), and programmed percussion pushes calmly forward.

Finally, Coloma distinguish themselves by virtue of their songwriting. For all its simplicity and all its retro feel, "Transparent" is a perfect pop song: catchy, moody, uncluttered. Unforgettable, in fact. And "Wintermission" is better still — there are shades of Durutti Column playing off shades of click-house, but both elements pale beneath the song's breathtaking poignancy, a rare moment of content almost entirely eclipsing form. It's one of the most beautiful songs I've heard this year, regardless of genre.

More and more dancefloor acts are turning to pop these days — both Luke Slater and Swayzak seem to have renounced the track in favor of the song, adding vocals and hooks to their percussive impulses — but Coloma's approach stands out. Every breath taken at the right time, every note coupled with its shadow harmony, everything in its right place: this is pop of the purest grade, perfectly timed, and perfectly aged.


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