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Friday, October 25, 2002

++ Exhuming Electro

++ In the attempt to make a dent in the teetering tower of CDs that's threatening to bury my desktop in an avalanche of aluminum and jewel cases, this week's installment of Needle Drops is another "megamix" of quality fall releases — this time with a tour of selected '80s reissues and related material. And what better way to start off a megamix column than with a bona fide megamix? Good luck finding it, but Playgroup — A.K.A. Trevor Jackson of Output Records — has just followed up his self-titled debut album, a stylized tour of '80s pop, with Party Mix Volume One, a dizzy spin through a wide array of electro-funk from 1979 through 1983 (or thereabouts). Clocking a reported 200 tracks in 60 minutes, Jackson touches on everything from staples like Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, "White Lines," Blondie, Grace Jones, Grandmaster Flash, "Rockit," New Order, etc., to less obvious tracks like A Certain Ratio's "Shack Up" (masterfully covered by BiS on their recent "Factory" EP), Trouble Funk's "Arkade Funk" (which I just scored at a garage sale for $1, thank you very much!), and a slew of choppy beats and gurgles I have no way of placing. I suspect it's a ProTools mix, not a live turntable reconstruction, but for once I could care less. Retro fetishists feeling especially shameless should track down Jackson's cover of Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel" (!K7), also included on the CD version of his DJ Kicks mix, alongside disco-funk old and new from the likes of KC Flightt, Human League, The Rapture, and Flesh Records' brilliant Zongamin.

For fans of the real period stuff, Germany's Tapete Records has just re-released the self-titled 1981 album from Palais Schaumburg, a band best known for launching the career of Mute recording artist Holger Hiller. But a glance at the credits reveals a more surprising historical footnote: Thomas Fehlmann, who went on to work with The Orb, Sun Electric, and a slew of Detroit techno artists, and who has, by all accounts, released a stunning solo album on Cologne's Kompakt. Palais Schaumburg play some weird, weird stuff, but it grows on you: like a more carnivalesque Cabaret Voltaire, it fuses live drumming, rhythm loops, synthesizer squelches, skronky horn blasts, funk-punk basslines, and Hiller's deranged moaning and singing. Elements of tribal percussion, angular melodies reminiscent of Tom Zé, industrial clang, and proto-techno arpeggiations serve as reminders that, musically speaking, 1981 was anything but boring.

++ You're left with the same impression after listening to Cabaret Voltaire's The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82 Best of, which compiles 14 rare tracks from the band's peak years. Mute has gradually been reissuing all of the band's early material — albums and compiled singles alike — in a flood that's admittedly a little overwhelming. This release provides a fantastic starting place if you don't know the band's material, though, ranging from the electrobilly rock of "No Escape" and "Nag Nag Nag" (recently reissued on 12-inch with remixes from Akufen and Tiga & Zyntherius!) to the weird, dislocated skank of "Silent Command" to the beatbox musique concrete of tracks like "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)" and "The Setup." I remember stumbling upon a grainy Cabaret Voltaire video on the wee-hour cable show Night Flight in 1984 or 1985; it's funny to think now of the impact on experimental and electronic music they'd already made by that date — and how I wouldn't be aware of their real importance for another 15 years.

++ The members of Cabaret Voltaire went their own ways. Though Stephen Mallinder mostly disappeared, Richard H. Kirk continues to record under a variety of names, and Chris Watson releases exceptional field recordings for Touch. But another seminal synth-punk group, Suicide, is still together. Their debut album from 1977, combining Martin Rev's growling synthesizers with Alan Vega's warbling, quavering, spoken-word vocals, has become an artpunk touchstone (even though, my courage bolstered by LCD Soundsystem's hilarious indictment of hipster obsessivism, "Losing My Edge," I'll admit here that I knew nothing about the band or their sound until quite recently — so there). But ROIR's Martin Rev, a compilation of selected solo tracks from Rev dating back to 1980, suggests a lighter side to the band's instrumental half: "Baby Oh Baby" may twist like a restless earthworm, writhing with ring modulations, but other tracks, like the opening "Mari" suggest a debt to doo-wop, as Steve Barker points out in the liner notes, connecting Rev's initially off-putting, synthetic sounds to a long tradition of (Afro-)American songcraft. And the seven-and-a-half-minute-long "Temptation" builds a dizzying repetition out of bells, drum machine, organs, and effects that sounds like Steve Reich scored for a Borscht Belt accompanist. Taken as historical document or simply a rollicking good time, Martin Rev comes highly recommended.

++ Suicide's new recording, American Supreme (also on Mute), treads ground similar to their debut release, but it sounds considerably more polite in the present-day context. "Swearin' to the Flag," for instance, rides along on a rolling electro chassis that wouldn't be out of place in any club DJ's box. Still, Vega's ranting carries a certain potency, like that angry drunk spouting off in the corner of the bar that you can't help but heed. The album notes turn out to be especially powerful, noting perhaps the paradox of affecting praxis through house rhythms: "[Pop] is the sound of creativity spawned from boredom; a source of ideas raised only to be pillaged. Pop is the last gasp before the day job grabs you, a scream in the face of the nine to five, a futile alternative to washing the car. Pop is an inevitable failure, a second of brilliance and a lifetime of grey. Pop is disappointment in multiple." The notes even touch on the absurdity of the "comeback album" itself, with a warning especially relevant to the current inclination toward perpetual cultural recycling: "The past has been plundered and the future mad retro. [sic] When context is lost, we will live in an eternal nowhere."

++ Next week: the Freeform album I promised last week, plus scads more new electronica, electro, and more.


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