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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
Electroclash Swindle.) Everywhere you turn, it seems, another
young upstart is brandishing a vintage keyboard and brooding into a
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
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
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
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.