Tag Archives: Synthpop

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: The Punishment of Luxury

They’re back – with catchy, intellectually-stimulating electronic pop

The bottom-heavy digital beats of today have all but obliterated the analog pop synthesis that sparked in the late-70s. OMD’s first single, “Electricity” (and its politically-conscious B-side “Enola Gay”) had many antecedents, but the mix of cool synthesizers and warm vocals sounded revolutionary in 1979. Even as the pre-programmed sounds of cheap Casio keyboards became hackneyed, OMD’s combination of analog and electronic instruments gave a modern edge to the former without letting the latter sap the music’s humanity. Although their early music combined intellectual subject matter with pop hooks and experimental sounds, they reached the zenith of their popularity in America in 1986 with the straightforward commercial ballad “If You Leave.”

The shift into the mainstream caused a rift between the band’s founders, with Andy McCluskey leaving in 1988, and co-founder Paul Humphreys carrying on with a varied cast until 1996. It would be ten more years until Humphreys and McCluskey rejoined under the OMD banner, returning to the band’s roots with a tour that included 1981’s seminal Architecture and Morality, a celebration of 1983’s avant-garde Dazzle Ships, and new material that began with History of Modern. 2017’s The Punishment of Luxury is the third album since the reformation, and the group’s first in four years. The title, derived from a nineteenth century painting by Giovanni Segantini, evokes the illusory value of luxury and the oppression of manufactured demand.

The reformed OMD has continued to explore the combination of industrial-inflected electronics, found sounds, intellectual subjects and catchy melodies with which they started. They wrap their dire warnings in bewitchingly catchy melodies, airing the tension between advancement and subversion that’s inherent in machine-based modernity. The cheeriness of the album’s title track obscures its analysis of a first-world so bathed in convenience, that the spark of its now lukewarm embrace no longer creates sensation. Numbed isolation found in the banality of commoditized information and the inevitability of decay is played in counterpoint to the human thirst for renewal.

The search for redemption reaches its zenith on “Ghost Star,” which poetically weaves together longing, lost chances, existentialism and hope. The magic of OMD is their ability to dress heady topics and synthesized, at times mechanical, backings in warm vocals and major keys. The mechanical overlord of “La Mitrailleuse” is illuminated by vocal effects and percussive backings that hang between snare drumming, typewriting and automatic gun fire – both horrific and danceable at the same time. The album closes with an invitation to face the challenges of modern life, suggesting that whether or not they’re surmountable, the journey may be worth failure. Those whose interest in OMD dates back to their earliest years will be delighted by this new album, and those who’ve yet to indulge can jump in right here. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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The Posies: Solid States

Posies_SolidStatesMelody-rich duo turns down the guitars, turns up the keyboards

To their credit, the Posies have never abandoned the DIY pop melodicism of their debut, Failure, but neither have they stood still. Their tours of duty with Big Star helped resurrect the iconic band as both a touring entity and recording outfit, and while it may have further informed the Posies, it didn’t turn them into a clone. The enduring chemistry between Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow has seen the Posies through more than three decades of changes, including divorces, relocations and the passing of bandmates. The duo’s melodic and harmonic connections draw a line through their catalog, even as their latest – their first album of original material since 2010’s Blood/Candy – lowers the guitar quotient for productions often driven by keyboards.

Thirty years in, the pair is more musically sophisticated and their studio technology is greatly advanced from the late-80s, but the enthusiasm and freedom of their debut repeats itself here. As the band has pointed out, in many ways this represents a return to the self-produced home studio recordings of their debut. And with the passing of their rhythm section, they are effectively a duo again. There’s a modern tone to the anthemic “Titanic,” as there is to much of the album, but with the warmth of a musician’s humanity that’s missing from most of today’s producer-helmed pop hits. The keyboards are ingratiating, and the percussion deftly mixes electronic and acoustic elements.

It’s a departure, but one that fans will easily take to, and one that’s papered over with the familiarity of the duo’s voices and hooks. The album opens with the call-to-arms “We Are Power,” exhorting collective action over individual passivity. Anti-authoritarianism pops up again in “Squirrel vs. Snake” and “The Plague,” and “M Doll” eviscerates the culture of celebrity marketing mannequins. But it’s not all social critique, as there are several songs of romantic rapprochement, cautiously seeking to engage, resurrect or simply support, and the easy synthpop soul of “Rollercoaster Zen” has a hook that’s hypnotic in its repetition.

Auer and Stringfellow play everything here but drums, which fall variously to Frankie Siragusa and Kliph Scurlock, and add a few guest voices to the backing choruses. Their melodies span from immediately hummable to complex, with several suggesting the minor-key sophistication of the Zombies. Those who have been enamored of the Posies melody-rich music will find it intact; it’s not a rehash of what they’ve done before, it’s a musical extension that breaks new ground while hanging on to the band’s essence. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Elana James: Black Beauty

ElanaJames_BlackBeautyA fiddler’s longing and guilty pleasures

James has made a name writing, singing and playing a unique combination of hot jazz and Western Swing with Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown. Though known primarily for her virtuosity as a fiddler, her voice, much like fellow instrumental prodigy Alison Krauss, has always held special qualities. Her self-titled 2007 solo album combined the same talents she’d leveraged in Hot Club – fiddle, voice and songwriting – but in a wider context that glimpsed her influences through the selection of cover songs. Eight years later, her second album expands on the same premise, weaving together originals, instrumentals (“Eva’s Dance” and “Waltz of the Animals”), and a selection of covers that spans jazz (“All I Need is You”), folk (“Hobo’s Lullaby”), counterculture classics (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Ripple”), ‘70s novelty (“Telephone Man”) and even ‘80s synthpop (“Only You”).

Impressively, James brings this wide range of material under one tent. Her plucked violin opens the album in place of Vince Clark’s synthesizer for Yazoo’s “Only You,” with a double-tracked vocal that’s lighter than Alison Moyet’s original. The song’s mood of longing is a fitting introduction to James’ originals, which include the unbreakable hold of “High Upon the Mountains” and the second-thoughts of “Reunion (Livin’ Your Dream).” The latter might have been the album’s most poignant moment, had James not turned a letter from a U.S. soldier into the eulogy “Hey Beautiful: Last Letter from Iraq.” Setting the words of Staff Sgt. Juan Campos to music, James evinces a longing for home that’s beyond homesickness, and in it’s true-to-life source, beyond the craft of lyric writing. It’s a touching complement to James’ original songs and the revelations she offers through her selection of covers. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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Various Artists: Heard it on the Radio, Volume 7

Idiosyncratic collection of ‘70s and ‘80s obscurities

A better title might have been “I Swear I Heard it on the Radio,” given that the obscurities gathered here are the province of local scenes, in-the-know college radio DJ’s, late-night MTV viewers (or those clued in to HBO’s Video Jukebox) and crate diggers. They constitute the maddeningly ephemeral song fragments in a million memories of low-charting singles, turntable hits that failed to crack the charts, and locally distributed singles that hadn’t the promotional muscle to gain national consensus. Most of the charting hits here only made the middle of the Top 100, and others, like the brilliant “Prettiest Girl” from the Boston-based power-pop/punk Neighborhoods, are rarely anthologized collectors’ items whose musical brilliance far outstripped their labels’ reach.

The selections mix synth-pop, prog-pop and power-rock. The set includes two Hollies covers (“On a Carousel” from Raleigh, NC’s Glass Moon, and “Pay You Back with Interest” from Canada’s Gary O), a take on the Spinners “I’ll Be Around” from the Los Angeles-based What Is This, and a pop-rock cover of the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” by former Stories front man, Ian Lloyd. Several of the collection’s hit makers, including Walter Egan, Jim Capaldi (of Traffic) and Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) are represented by minor singles that only brushed the bottom half of the Top 20, and Lloyd delivers a pre-Bryan-Adams-hit version of Adams’ “Lonely Nights,” with Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance providing the backing.

This is a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection that seems to tour the darkest reaches of its anthologizer’s musical memory. In addition to the early ‘80s synth- and prog-rock, the set list stretches back to Fanny’s 1974 glam rock “I’ve Had It” and Alvin Lee and Myron LeFevre’s 1973 country-folk version of George Harrison’s “So Sad (No Love of His Own).” Listeners are bound to find at least one long-lost favorite among the rarities collected here, with the indie-released Neighborhoods single (previously available digitally only on the out-of-print 12 Classic 45s) being the freshest fish-out-of-water amongst the ‘80s pop tunes. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

The Surfin’ Robots: Cowabungiga!

Synthpop meets surf music and post-punk

If you’ve been itching to take a toaster into the ocean, this French band’s electrosurf music is for you. It melds the repetitive electronic buzz, drum machines, low bass and processed vocal riffs of dance music with the spring reverb sounds of surf guitar. This rambles between banal dance tunes, kitschy Perry & Kingsley-styled synthpop, ‘50s and ‘60s space-age bachelor pad pastiche, and Raybeats-styled post-punk surf. Surf fans should check out “Cowabungiga,” “Chemical Beach,” and “Made in China,” among other tracks. Ennio Morricone fans, give a listen to “Lonely Space Surfer,” and those still freaking out from ‘60s acid flashbacks might like “Speed Spirals.” [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Domestic reissue of 1980 UK synthpop landmark

OMD is one of the transitional entities that bridged early electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Wendy Carlos, with the synthpop bands that populated the New Wave and dominated the early years of MTV. The band’s 1979 single, “Electricity,” pushed its synthetic instruments and machine rhythms up front, but warmed them with Andy McCluskey’s bass, a catchy electric pianotron riff and a duet vocal from McCluskey and Paul Humphries that celebrated the power source of their music. The flip, “Almost,” is an equal combination of synthetics and warmth, but the keyboards are less angular and more expansive, with a soaring lead line and steam-like backing for the lush, Bryan Ferry-esque vocal of longing and indecision.

For this first full-length album, issued in 1980, McCluskey and Humphries followed the same template, using their primitive electronic instruments to create pulsating and jabbing backings for vocals that borrow the strident tone of mod and punk. Their lyrics are often impressionistic sketches of emotions and concepts, including a soldier’s life (a theme they’d revisit to even greater effect on “Enola Gay”), the illusions of time, and fatalism. The new-wave “Red Frame/White Light” unspools a series of telephone box snapshots, and the album’s most conventional lyric in “Messages” finds the singer recoiling from the unwanted contact of a departed lover. The boozy near-instrumental “Dancing” sounds like a record caught off spindle, and the atmospheric “The Messerschmitt Twins” brings to mind the Human League’s first full-length, Reproduction.

Microwerks’ CD reissue is delivered in a tri-fold cardboard slipcase that reproduces the original LPs die-cut front cover and adds excellent liner notes by Jim Allen. The original ten tracks are augmented by four bonuses (though not the band-disliked Martin Hannett productions of “Electricity” and “Almost,” which were included on EMI’s 2003 import reissue). There is a longer single of “Messages” whose bassier, fuller mix greatly improves upon the album version, and three B-sides: the dark “I Betray My Friends,” an instrumental remix/dub of “Messages” titled “Taking Sides Again,” and a pop-staccato cover of Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man.” Though critics more highly laud the band’s follow-ups, Organisation and Architecture & Morality, this debut laid out the template and still sounds innovative today. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Andy Kim: Happen Again

Welcome return of talented 60s/70s singer-songwriter

Singer-songwriter Andy Kim’s time in the spotlight of mass public acclaim was surprisingly short. In 1968 he co-wrote the song of the year (and national anthem of the bubblegum nation), “Sugar Sugar,” along with its follow-up, “Jingle Jangle” and other effervescent Archies’ album cuts. He edged onto the charts with his own “So Good Together” and “Rainbow Ride,” and cracked the Top 20 with covers of the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You” and “Be My Baby” in 1969 and 1970. Despite several fine albums for the Steed label [1 2], further commercial success eluded him until 1975’s chart-topping “Rock Me Gently.” Then, as the single’s run ended, so did Kim fade from public view. He resurfaced in the 1980s with a pair of albums under the name Baron Longfellow, but mostly stayed out of the spotlight.

In 1995 Kim connected with Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies, and in 2005 was coaxed from retirement to record an EP and give sporadic public performances. Another five years further on – twenty years since his last full album – Kim returns in superb voice with a disc full of terrific new songs. His writing craft translates smoothly to modern production sounds, and his voice, lowered both by age and choice (his earlier hits were often sped up to sound younger), is more studied and reflective than the unbridled optimism of the 1970s. “Judy Garland” offers a note of support to the troubled star with a rolling rhythm, CS&N-styled harmonies and a killer chorus hook. His thoughtful contemplation of mortality, “Someday,” reaches back to the Brill Building for a baion beat, but dresses it minimally in riveting percussion and a moody organ.

Kim and his studio crew have gathered together instrumental elements across several decades, marrying power-, sunshine- and synth-pop sounds into a truly compelling whole. Kim’s clearly continued listening to new music during his time away from the limelight, as he incorporates the emotional grandeur and orchestral touches of Verve and Coldplay, but without surrendering his ‘70s roots. He writes of love and relationships, but his lyrics ask questions rather than proclaim answers.  On the album’s title track he wonders, “Do you feel connected / to sentimental times,” and laments innocence lost. He’s optimistic, but the tone hasn’t the brash certainty of someone in their 20s or 30s.

The exhilaration that Kim does find, such as the schoolboy love of “I Forgot to Mention,” only really busts out in the chorus, and even then its insular focus is nagged by the outside world. Ironically, his realization that “Love Has Never Been My Friend” is sung to a bouncy melody that playfully undermines the song’s plea for Cupid to keep his distance. If one were to mentally extrapolate Kim’s music from the ‘70s to today, you’d get exactly this album: a thoughtful, finely honed collection of songs that refract youthful enthusiasms through the grounding of adult living, expressed in melodies that linger in your ears. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Someday
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NightWaves: Sweet Carrie

Hook-filled synthpop ear-candy

NightWaves are a Los Angeles duo (Kyle Petersen and Josh Legg) whose synthpop is heavy on the hooks of classic radio pop. Their latest single is the sort of catchy confection that once populated MTV and formed a pillar of ‘80s New Wave radio formats. The production combines layers of synthesizers with an insistent rhythm guitar, a memorable vocal and a killer chorus. If you miss the Buggles, Human League, Depeche Mode, Yazoo (and the offshoot Assembly) and OMD, you’re sure to love this.

If you fashion yourself a remixologist, you can find the elements of the tune here as wave files. And you can find a number of other fan remixes here. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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