Sensitive-Whiteboy Robo-Soul Will Own 2008
Kelley Polar, looking ridiculous
I keep a piece of paper thumbtacked up next to my desk where I write down every album that I liked in the past few months. The idea is that when I get around to doing my quarterly report things, I'll have a handy little shortlist to work from. (I don't do the same thing for singles, though God knows I probably should.) So far this year, that list has been a bit different from my usual jumble. For one thing, it's still the beginning of the year, a traditionally slow time, and I just haven't heard that much good stuff lately. But what's up there breaks down pretty weirdly along genre lines: a couple of good metal albums, a few noisier picks, no rap worth mentioning until the Re-Up Gang mixtape leaked last weekend, Vampire Weekend. But one vague non-genre has dominated. For whatever reason, early 2008 is turning out to be a great time for robotic whiteboy disco-soul. Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier, Hercules & Love Affair, and Kelly Polar don't all come from the same scene; as far as I can tell, none of them really come from any one particular scene at all. And they don't really sound like each other; this isn't one of those explosions of like-minded bands where everyone comes up listening to and influencing each other. But all these records share a lot. All four of those acts have associations to established dance-music entities (DFA, Daft Punk, Metro Area), and they all share a serious dancefloor affinity, but none of them really makes dance music, at least not in its most utilitarian sense. Instead, they play around with the mechanics of rhythm and melody, using them as vehicles for sweetly romantic lost-soul lamentations (sometimes ironic, sometimes not) rather than as ends unto themselves. I'm not really a dance-music guy, and I can't speak to the efficacy of most of this stuff on actual dancefloors, but I can say without reservation that all these groups make pretty great iPod music, music that bleeds into the background beautifully into the background and lends a sort of grand pull to everything it ends up soundtracking. I wish I knew what's causing this little mini-boom: Cold weather? Gradual bleedthrough of diluted T-Pain influence on indie-pop? An aging-urban-sophisticate version of rave nostalgia? Really, I have no fucking idea. But it's a good thing, and I hope it lasts.
Out of all those acts, Hot Chip is by far the most established, and their Made in the Dark has been the most anticipated. In ways I'm still figuring out, it's also the most disappointing. Part of it is the absolute remix-circuit tear Hot Chip have been on lately; their revisions of songs like Tracey Thorn's "King's Cross" and the Junior Boys' "In the Morning" have been serious wounded-romantic bangers, tracks that fuse the groups twitchy heartbroken grace with their hosts' sensibilities effortlessly. A couple of weeks back, a track they produced for the British rapper Dels made the rounds; the idea of Hot Chip making rap should be just painful, but even that came off beautifully. But Hot Chip are a group with a whole lot of ideas, and not all those ideas are good ones. Since their inception, they've been probably the only synthpop group in existence to operate on the Fugazi model, where the records, great as they might be, basically exist to serve as previews for the live show. Hot Chip's live shows are things of beauty: five wormy pixeltanned Brits working up gigantic clanking laser-show bangers and then suddenly breaking for surging choruses of shocking loveliness. Advance word on Made in the Dark said that they'd finally figured out how to translate the energy of those shows to record, but it turns out not so much. Isolated moments on the album do capture that grandeur. "Touch Too Much" welds devastated vocal harmonies to jittery beats in exactly the way I'd hoped they'd do throughout this thing. "Ready for the Floor," the single, is total twerked-out Pet Shop Boys/New Order awesomeness. "Hold On" has probably the itchiest, most restless groove they've yet worked up. But they haven't yet grown out of their penchant for godawful math-club jokes, and "Wrestlers" is about the most egregious example of that nudge-nudge humor they've produced to dates. It's seriously not funny when reedy-voiced dorks sing about beating you up. It's just not. And when those jokes take the form of a laundry-list of wrestling moves, some of which I'm pretty sure don't exist, it's somehow even more galling. But even "Wrestling" has a gorgeous little piano bit that comes in on the chorus. Even when these guys are disappointing, there's always something there.
There's not always something there with Sebastien Tellier, the impressively bearded cheeseball Parisian sex-crooner whose new album, Sexuality, I still like a lot. Tellier does most of his breathy whisper-singing in French, but it's not hard to figure out what he's talking about, and the female moaning that shows up from time to time fills in any remaining blanks. This is total Moroder/Gainsbourg pastiche, and the amount of puerile club-kid winking sometimes drives Sexuality perilously close to Chromeo territory; I have to assume that keytaurs will figure prominently into the guy's live show. But the level of craftsmanship on the album is just insane. It's not in the songwriting, which really isn't much; it's in the actual individual sounds. A Wendy & Lisa keyboard-note will sustain just right. A buttrock guitar solo will come out pillowy and languid. The Cerrone-sounding synth arpeggios on "Sexual Sportswear" twinkle like nothing I've heard lately. I wasn't there for the creation of this thing, but I have to assume that a lot of the credit for these sounds should go to the album's producer, Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Tellier and Homem-Christo appear to have taken midtempo Daft Punk pricklers like "Digital Love" as their starting point. And, as starting points go, "Digital Love" is pretty great. There's not a lot of emotional weight to Sexuality, but sometimes emotional weight is entirely beside the point.
Earlier this week, Nick Sylvester wrote a post about the New York disco project Hercules & Love Affair where he basically dared the entire rest of the music press to jump on board with it. Well, I'm on board, mostly. And I'm on board partly because Andy Butler, the DJ behind Hercules & Love Affair, has finally found something worthwhile to do with Antony. Antony, of Johnsons fame, has a truly dazzling voice, as immediately distinctive as it is technically on-point. But Antony hasn't shown that he has much idea what to do with that voice, at least not from where I'm sitting; his own cabaret-folk excursions are way too formless and self-indulgent for me. But Butler turns him into a disco diva, which makes pretty much the perfect context for this guy. More than any of the acts I'm talking about in this entry, Hercules & Love Affair is straight-up disco (if "straight-up disco" isn't some horrible contradiction-in-terms misnomer). Butler clearly wants to find the same balance of muscular thump and melodic uplift that exists in some of the best prime-era disco records, and sometimes he finds it. "Blind," the pseudo-hit single, is a serious starstruck banger, Antony testifying meaningless idealism over a sweeping hurricane of horns and slap-bass and ravey synth-burble. And "You Belong" just whoops ass, Kim Ann Foxman snarling icy Crystal Waters drama while Antony coos in the background and cowbells and housey pianos fly in from all directions. But those are the most straight-ahead tracks on the self-titled Hercules album; sometimes this stuff wafts off into fidgety avant-disco diffusion and sort of loses me. Even then, though, the rhythmic push and melodic pull are both there, figuring ways to work together. I'm still absorbing this one, but it's scratching itches.
My favorite of these albums by a pretty serious margin, though, is Kelley Polar's I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling. My standard line on Polar is that he sounds the way I'd imagined Arthur Russell would sound before I actually heard Arthur Russell. Back when those Russell reissues were first getting ink, the writers who bigged him up focused on a few aspects of his work (cellos, rippling beats, withdrawn sad-gay-guy emoting) without mentioning the stuff that would ultimately make it impossible for me to fully get into the guy (Chick Corea electric pianos, endless tracks). Polar basically makes the music I'd been hoping Russell would: proggy, ambitious string-laden space-disco with a gooey tender-hearted center. His 2005 debut, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens, walked the same middle-ground between glassy minimal techno and dinky laptop-emo that the Junior Boys live on. With the new album, though, he's fully internalized both tendencies and fused them into something bigger than its parts, making room for Tangerine Dream lunar-landscape heaviness and early-house lushness. And the hooks here are out of control, both in terms of sweep and immediacy; when Polar and his female counterpoint come together on the chorus of "Entropy Reigns (in the Celestial City)," it just kills me. I hadn't even realized this until Matthew Fluxblog pointed it out, but that song's lyrics actually make for a pretty compelling portrait of a character who feels completely lost in nightlife sensation and who can't find a way to pull any meaning from it. That contrast is all over this thing: slick surface and helpless sentiment coexisting peacefully, giving each other context.