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Friday, July 26, 2002

++ Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?

++ I was wrong, OK? Are you happy? Is that what you wanted to hear?

++ For months now, in typically cranky fashion, I've been bitching about the new new wave: release after release adding a neon-hued flourish to techno, house, and even rock. Not even UK garage has remained immune — Gary Numan's classic-but-overplayed "Cars" received the 2-step treatment well over a year ago. The hype has been all-encompassing, from British style mag Sleaze Nation's cover feature on "synthcore" to New York popcult gadfly Vice's guide to electroclash — the latter name taken from a popular festival presented last fall in New York — to Simon Reynolds' recent pieces for the New York Times and the Village Voice. (There's even a brilliant parody site on the Great Electroclash Swindle.) Everywhere you turn, it seems, another young upstart is brandishing a vintage keyboard and brooding into a vocoder.

I should just come right out and admit that my own critical distance is impaired by my own history with the subject: after all, I was 14 in 1985. My early adolescence is marked by memories of Depeche Mode, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and a lot of second-rate crap that I'm sure not going to mention here. I was young enough to have missed out on the first wave of American hardcore, but still, perhaps, old enough to know better. (Blame Jim O'Rourke: when he confessed to digging into the likes of Stockhausen and Albert Ayler as a young teen, he raised the stakes for all of us. On second thought, he bid most of us out of the game entirely.) I remember performing Siouxsie's version of "Helter Skelter" at a high school lip-sync contest my freshman year, eyes darker than Cleopatra's at midnight, torn jeans tucked into combat boots, black trenchcoat flying. What was I thinking?

But this isn't the first time the '80s have made a reappearance: the decade started creeping back into fashion when I was still in college in the early '90s. When I was a senior, the freshmen were holding John Hughes tributes and dancing to the Thompson Twins. That's when I first realized that I was getting old, for within a four-year time span two generations had been clearly divided: those who lived it, and those who aped it. The '80s were a profoundly unserious decade, so it's only fitting that their return was steeped in irony and kitsch. Still, with a closet full of photos back at the parents' house, picturing yours truly with moussed-up hair and paisley shirts buttoned to the collar, I couldn't appreciate the kitcsh; irony's only ironic when it doesn't hit so close to home.

Perhaps my resistance has slipped, like a pair of leg warmers sliding slowly south; but recently I've changed my tune. It turns out that there are a number of artists who have worked the sounds of new wave into their music to brilliant effect. Grafting a glossy handclap or a googly arpeggio to a tech-house chug, they've come up with something tinged with kitsch but irreducible to pure irony, and at the same time full of funk, sadness or passion.

++ As with mohawks (or, let's be honest, faux-hawks), asymmetrical bangs, Members Only jackets, diagonal stripes, white belts, and the rest of the Williamsburg/Mission District uniform, there's no pinpointing the exact source of the current '80s revival, beyond its own creeping inevitability.

Musically, it's been in the works for ages, from high and low alike. Basement Jaxx signaled a major step toward full '80s acceptance with the graphical abominations — something like Animotion meets Wild Style — on the cover of Rooty. Adult., the Detroit electro duo, have recently achieved a level of buzzworthiness for their austere rhythm tracks and cold, asexual vocals, but they've been working the same narrow groove for four years now. Even the major label A&R people knew something was up, and tried to anticipate the trend: who could forget Orgy's atrocious cover of "Blue Monday"? (OK, so you had forgotten it. I'm sorry I brought it up.)

Not that dance music doesn't have at least partial roots in new wave. You can hear hints of techno in New Order's "Video 5-8-6," and the origins of electro — another sound stirring in the depths of that band's earliest productions — overlap with new wave's reign. (Arguably, electro's cycle of resurgence, enjoying a minor revival every five years or so, helped prime the culture for new wave's return.)

Of course, hip-hop's origins are also steeped in electro, which brings up an interesting corollary. New wave, thanks in no small measure to the flaccid foppishness of acts like Flock of Seagulls, is often remembered as being whiter than white and about as funky as Regis Philbin. But a glance back in time serves to remind us that electronic music, broadly defined, was once very much a cross-cultural phenomenon.

New wave's post-punk pioneers, like A Certain Ratio and Cabaret Voltaire, had roots in funk and disco. Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk on "Planet Rock," while Mantronix routinely played early hip-hop alongside Euro-dance tracks. Soul Jazz's excellent new Mantronix compilation, That's My Beat: Kurtis Mantronik Selects Classic Old Skool Hip-Hop, Electro & Disco, reflects the range of funk in the early '80s, when rap tracks like Jimmy Spicer's Sugar Hill-inspired "Super Rhymes" and Funky 4 Plus 1's "That's the Joint" rubbed shoulders with Art of Noise's "Beatbox" and even Ryuchi Sakamoto's bizarrely Asiatic electro masterpiece, "Riot in Lagos."

In a recent conversation Beans, of Anti-Pop Consortium, and New York vocal artist Latasha Natasha Diggs both recalled how in the early 1980s urban radio routinely broadcast "white" new wave records by artists like New Order and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It's surprising not only for its demographic clash, but also because white suburbanite kids — like myself — hadn't the slightest chance of hearing such "alternative" music over commercial airwaves. Perhaps it's not so surprising: after all, Arthur Baker produced New Order, who themselves appeared on Quincy Jones' Qwest records, and their Baker-produced song "Confusion" even made it onto the U.S. R&B charts.

If anyone has arguably had the greatest impact on dance music's new-wave infusion, it's most likely — you guessed it — New Order. Their glossy keyboard textures, purring rhythms, and harmonic sensibilities are all over electronic recordings these days, from Midwest Product's debut album to Morgan Geist's electro-house singles. First and foremost, though, you can hear it in the handclaps.

++ One look at Midnight Mike's "Round & Around" (Flesh) and you know there's some serious tributizing going on. The black-and-white photo of Mike and his vocalist, the "enchanting" Violetta, isn't so specific, recalling Opal and OMD and early Everything but the Girl all at once, but the cover graphic is a straight rip from Joy Division's Closer, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and all the other great Factory Records designs. Rather than a New Order or Joy Division rehash, though, the record offers a spacious and sultry minimal house track that could almost be one of Herbert's, but for the upfront drum machines. Like most of the new new wave, the song's heart is a simple arpeggio, essentially a toggled octave stuttering over and over on a keyboard preset so acidic it makes you want to reach for the Prilosec.

The enchanting Violetta sings her breathy lines — "Round and around oh you and me baby" etc. etc. — in a breathy whisper that could be intimate or perhaps just apathetic. (You'll notice that among all the stylistic signifiers that make up '80s retro, boredom figures prominently, often parlayed into deadpan vocals, with or without processing.) The song, though, is far from boring, despite the relative lack of complexity or development. The boom-tick house pattern is as taut and simple as anything on Playhouse; the arpeggios pop with all the underage zest of Brooks, and the moment halfway through when everything melts down is a moment of pure synaesthetic bliss. Unexpected surprises keep popping up, like the Slits-inspired guitar skank that flashes forth and disappears in the space of a measure. And if there were an award for best use of handclaps, this track would win for 2002, hands-down. Or hands-together, as it were. Jittery, dry, gated just so — it's hard to believe that I ever found handclaps embarrassing. In the drum machine of Midnight Mike, they're redeemed, and then some.

Next week: More new new wave, with Morgan Geist, Alter Ego, Justus Koenckhe, Coloma, Midwest Product and more. In the meantime, you can get a taste of the new new wave here.


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