It was inevitable that the world of DJ culture would become a fickle bitch. Never a genre to sit on its laurels, the increased hybridization and miscegenation has made pretty much all dance music fair game for a competitive round of who’s mashing who. A-Trak, known significantly for his numerous DMC championships and work with Kanye West, is well aware of the fodder of which he can plunder, and here, on his first big exposure calling card, Infinity +1, he sets out to create a certain identity as a mixologist. There’s little evidence here of his skills as a turntablist except on his own composition, “Say Whoa,” where over a chopped and screwed sci-fi circuit bender he emits a few deft strokes with the needle. But otherwise this is a record built almost exclusively on disco elasticity, constant buoyancy, and a series of tense peaks that luckily pay off in explosive breaks from the sweat lodge.
Unlike Diplo, the renaissance man who pines for the exotic drum, or Girl Talk, who bastardizes pop hits with little effort and heart, A-Trak sounds addicted to the European strain of electric boogaloo which began with Moroder and has now emerged as French house (think Daft Punk/Ed Banger mega-beat). Newbies like the Golden Filter and Little Boots coo in elegiac neon landscapes seamlessly with more nuanced micro-splatter by Dam Funk (a mix highlight) and Sebastian Tellier. A-Trak does tend to lean heavily on dramatic strings and the glitter of the mirror ball, still his first love of hip-hop makes a presence in some unforgettable outbursts. “Bounce,” in particular, an original remix of MstrKrft and N.O.R.E. is a hyphy hybrid of beta-synth blurts and gangster bacchanalia, and the Kid Sister rollerskate jam. “Life on T.V.” from her long in the making debut, is a peek into a future where A-Trak will undoubtedly contribute to the proliferation of illuminatingly crunked disco and the advancement of culture from all fronts.
Kevin J. Elliott
Started eight years ago while Guided By Voices was still a functioning entity, Circus Devils initially appeared to be just another entry in the endless list of Robert Pollard side projects. Eight years later, though, the group, which also includes brothers Todd and Tim Tobias, is still active, and has seemingly developed into one of the main objects of Pollard’s attention.
Gringo, the seventh Circus Devils album, follows the group’s “formula” in the sense that each record bears little resemblance to those that came before it. The album noticeably leans primarily upon acoustic guitars, minimizing the synth atmospherics and general weirdness that have been among the few Circus Devils trademarks. In this sense, Gringo sounds more like a Pollard solo record than any of the band’s priors, and it fits solidly into the Silverfish Trivia and Coast to Coast Carpet of Love mold. Like those records, Gringo provides some memorable moments, but is overall uneven. Mid-tempo rockers “Witness Hill” and “Before It Walks” showcase the group clicking nicely and make good use of the acoustic guitars within the full-band context. Songs like “Every Moment Flame On” and the “Ants,” however, have some decent hooks, but ultimately get overly repetitive and would likely work better as old-school Pollard song snippets.
By far, Gringo is at its best during its quieter, more introspective moments. “Stars Out All Night” contains a haunting vocal melody that is given proper breathing room, with only guitar and subtle synth accompaniment. A similar approach is followed for “Shipped from Prison to Prison,” which features a tender vocal that ranks among Pollard’s best work. While songs like these aren’t enough to make Gringo into a classic, they do prove that Pollard can still put together quality material that will satisfy his faithful fan base and hold the attention of casual listeners.
For a band that’s mistakenly pigeonholed as a one-hit-wonder ’80s casualty, the Pet Shop Boys (vocalist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe) have managed to carve out a solid 20-year career with nine albums and numerous B-Side and remix compellations. After a two-year detour that saw the British duo mainly behind the boards as remixers and producers, they have returned with their latest album, Yes.
The Pet Shop Boys have always operated in their own particular universe. Musically they may make a passing reference to the trends of the time, but you’ll never find them chasing after the “in sound.” But as A Tribe Called Quest once said, “Don’t you know that things go in cycles.” The electro-pop sound that was once so trailblazing when the Boys debuted in ’84 has snuck back onto the airwaves via such fans as Lady Gaga. It’s a weird stroke of luck that this is the radio environment into which Yes is being dropped.
Yes seems like business as usual. You have Tennant’s deadpan vocals over an electro-orchestra pop backing, while lyrically the songs bounce between character sketches and tales of romantic longing. But it seems that Tennant’s usually reliable pop sensibilities are failing him. The first four songs are desperate for a hook, and you get a slight feeling that the PSB are just phoning it in. There’s nothing flat out awful, but there are some cringeworthy moments, the worst being the couplet from “Did You See Me Coming,” where Tennant sings, “You don’t have to read ‘What’s What’ to know who’s who. You don’t need DNA to find the proof.”
Yet just when it seems like Yes could be chalked up as a late-career mistake, “Vulnerable” manages to turn the whole thing around. It’s like the first songs were just the warm-up session because from that point on the record just jumps from success to success. While the second half never hits the giddy pop heights of some of their earlier work, it is a deft blend of dance tunes with post-club introspection. Songs like “More Than A Dream” and “Legacy” are among the best the band has done in years. Thankfully after an early stumble the Pet Shop Boys turned their record from being a “maybe” to a definite Yes.
Dorian S. Ham
It’s hard to gauge the true mettle of a band, especially one as fresh and consequently pigeonholed as Brooklyn’s Suckers, from a record with only four songs. What this EP does, however, is provide a base from which songwriter Quinn Walker can expand upon and a good sense of what he can ditch from further experiments. “Beach Queen” is, in essence, what Suckers should concentrate upon, a mellifluous take on the nouveau romanticism employed first by Roxy Music but taken to extremes by bands like Japan and Spandau Ballet. Suckers are nowhere near as dour and coldly Teutonic as these pioneers, their shimmered guitars and marshmallow synths are inhibited with the glaze of hipster ubiquity. That’s not to say that the execution is regretful—it’s actual a delight—but one glance over the group’s promotional pic (adorned in tribal cloaks and party masks) and the thought of how they might present this live is cringe-worthy, questioning whether the group is using Lexicon of Love as a creative tool or inside joke.
“Afterthoughts and TV” and the closer “It Gets Your Body Movin’” are perhaps the real indicators to whom and to what Suckers are metaphysically adhered. Full of uplifting choral refrains and sweeping arrangements, they’re structurally in line with the whimsical nearly staged pop of Department of Eagles and Yeasayer (whose Anand Wilder produces), a camp that has become homogenous in their all-join-in mantras. Hopefully Suckers can soon distance themselves from the kitsch and fine tune the tropical hues and grandiose vision this small batch seems to possess, but only in ephemeral illusions.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “It Gets Your Body Movin’”
On Metric’s latest release, Fantasies, you’ll find the band straying more and more toward the pop sound that they’ve always verged upon. Although frontwoman Emily Haines assured the press that, despite this new direction, Metric would maintain their artistic integrity, the album, alas, fails to support the claim. Not that there’s anything wrong with pop music; in fact, the album is more polished and of a fuller quality than previous Metric releases. However, the mystique that made Metric so enigmatic—well, that, unfortunately is absent this go around.
Fantasies tries to develop into a cross-genre excursion through the oft-twisted mind of Haines and company, and in some cases (“Help, I’m Alive” and “Gimme Sympathy”), it succeeds. Other times, however, it falls short of the hype. Splashes of disco, glam-rock, and electronica are palpable throughout, but these glimpses of brilliance are overshadowed by the over-mixing and mastering of the album. The raw, haunting quality of Haines’ voice was, and still is, one of the many things that made Metric stirring. But that rawness, too, has been polished away. Metric’s music, though interesting in its own right, was brilliant in the fact that it highlighted Haines’ ethereal vocals and oddly captivating lyrics. It seems such a shame to squander something so beautiful as Haines’ voice on an album so mundane.
Amongst its faults, Fantasies has its redeeming qualities. Haines’ poignant and often symbolic lyricisms are still in tact and strong as ever. There’s something infinitely appealing about the way she can sing about ghosts and lost loves (“Satellite Mind”) and make it tender rather than cheesy. Metric end the album with the ambitious track, “Stadium Love”, which suggests the grandeur for which this album was aiming and indeed accomplishes, though at the expense of the band’s subtler and more persuasive charms. In the end, Fantasies is what it is—and that is generic, however grandiose.