Is it retro electro, neo electro or electroclash, the phrase New York DJ/producer Larry Tee coined to describe it? Whatever the name, the sound is beginning to vibrate across the same underground scene currently eating up the analog offerings of the Vines, the Hives and the Strokes. The vibe is new wave with a punk spirit, electronic but with a distinct vocal element that purposely ditches the meandering beats of techno and trance.
Originally headquartered in Vienna by DJ Hell and his International DJ Gigolo imprint, electroclash combines DIY attitude and the latest in digital media hardware. The style spread to Montreal via Hell's turntablist friend, DJ Tiga, and then hit New York City, San Francisco and all destinations east and west. Denver recently caught up when clubs Citrus and Enigma co-hosted "Electro Rhinestone Cowboy," presented by local spinners Wyatt Earp and Philip G, earlier this month.
Electroclash unabashedly swindles the sonic architecture of early-'80s artists: The electronic-rock signatures of New Order and OMD are muted, while the chilly European tones of Yello and Human League are mixed up front and center. Electroclash bands have ripped off the moody pulsations of Ultravox, the Thompson Twins and Soft Cell at point-blank range, while many lesser-knowns like Steve Strange, Throbbing Gristle and Section 25 can be listed as discreet influences, twice as cool because of their obscurity. And the visionary mechanized pop of Kraftwerk and Vince Clark (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) gesticulates in the software of almost all e-clash programming.
A new, confessional twist has appeared along with the electro revival, as well. Anti-establishment lyrics looted from the old punk and hardcore scenes have been grafted onto the style's automated soundscapes. The new generation rummages brazenly through off-color topics like sex, drugs and crime, making its downright dirty lyrics a leisure world, "Fuck tha Police"-type manifesto for disco citizens who cavort in limousines and VIP areas. Berlin-based DJ Miss Kitten -- one of many female singers in the avant-garde of the new scene -- revels in the decadence that has grown during the last three decades of club culture: "Every night with my star friends/We eat caviar and drink champagne," she sings. "We talk about Frank Sinatra/You know Frank Sinatra? He's dead, dead." A mad cackle finishes off the lyric, dispelling any deep meaning or serious intention. (The Chairman of the Board wasn't dead when Kitten recorded "Frank Sinatra" with producer the Hacker in 1997.)
This what's-old-is-new-so-let's-have-a-party mantra is being chanted in dance clubs and by music retailers both locally and globally. Outlets like Club Luxx in Brooklyn, Synthetic in Los Angeles and Club Berlin in Germany all carry the torch, while Denver's Twist & Shout recently added a "Retro Electro" section to its DJ bins. And though Madonna sports a "Thee RetroLectro Mix" of her single "Die Another Day" -- courtesy of electroclash cheerleader Felix da Housecat -- this scene is about the kids crafting new music and fashion out of leftovers and spare parts while dancing the night away under the cold electronic pall of a digitized landscape.
Some essential listening:
Miss Kitten and the Hacker
(Emperor Norton Records)
Goldenboy With Miss Kitten
(Emperor Norton Records)
Felix da Housecat
Kittenz and Thee Glitz
(Emperor Norton Records)
These CDs, all courtesy of the eclectic Emperor Norton Records imprint, form Miss Kitten's introduction to the mainstream retro scene. First Album, Kitten's collaboration with the Hacker, is the darkest of the set, clinging to the crystalline sounds of European techno in all its acid-house fury. On tracks like "Life on MTV," "1982" and "Stock Exchange," the disc illuminates all of the '80s themes that now fill the electroclash firmament, from video culture to making money.
The warmest of the three recordings is Or, which mixes Miss Kitten's off-key, deadpan vocals with Kraftwerk-inspired instrumental tracks. "Autopilot" plays up Miss Kitten's home-bred French accent, while "Rippin' Kitten" is the prettiest song on the record if you ignore her pleas to "go out and kill tonight." "Campari Soda" works without the chanteuse's vocals; the song focuses instead on the glories of club drinks and Goldenboy's android voice box.
Felix da Housecat has been around longer than Kitten, and his recent identification with the emerging scene is both purposeful and crafty; Kitten and Thee Glitz was one of last year's most enthusiastically embraced electro albums. His remixes of the Pet Shop Boys' "IDK" and the recent German single "London" can be considered homages to influences whose time has come and probably gone. But the video for "Silver Screen Shower Scene," featuring a vampy Miss Kitten, is probably the first to make its way into video bar programming. And the sultry "Walk With Me" mixes a loose house feeling with precise electronic rhythms and Felix's soothing vocals.
American Gigolo: The Best of International Deejay Gigolo Records
(Turbo Recordings/International Deejay Gigolo Records)
One of the first commercial compilations of the electroclash movement, this disc is tightly edited by Turbo Recordings pioneer DJ Tiga of Montreal, and it moves from electro to dark techno over the course of its 25 tracks. The material hails from the vaults of DJ Hell's International Deejay Gigolo label, which was the first to encapsulate this retro-synth sound. At times the tone is German-influenced, austere and moody -- as on Dopplereffekt's "Porno Actress" and Trike's "Electric Day," which features Audiomat. But Tiga and Zyntherius's cover of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" hints at the digital fun that American acts like Chicks on Speed and W.I.T. would later bring to the genre. The CD is also the first anthology to include New York City performance act Fischerspooner, whose "Emerge" closes out Tiga's contribution to the Gigolo party.
(Urban Theory/Beechwood Music)
This UK compilation comes close to an honest appraisal of the full range of electroclash sounds, including everything from David Carretta's harsh but catchy "Vicious Game" to the sickly sweet itch of Crëme De Menthe's "Plastique." Provocateur Peaches displays her sexually charged self all over this double-disc set with the inclusion of the original track "AA XXX," a remix of Basement Jaxx's "Get Me Off," and "Red Leather," a duet with Gonzales. Founding scenester Linda Lamb's "Hot Room" lacks the kick of DJ Tiga's remix (which appears on the American Gigolo compilation), but Dot Allison's "We're Only Science" shows how an established talent -- with a background in ten-minute techno noodling -- can adapt to a new scene without too much wear and tear. Chicks on Speed's "Euro Trash Girl" is also a standout track.
Ultra.80's vs Electro 01
Ultra.80's vs Electro 01 is a hodgepodge collection that aims to favorably compare new stars against the golden oldies of new wave. The double CD does the former while screwing up the latter with ham-fisted track selections. While elder-statesman cuts -- such as Laidback's "White Horse," Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's "White Lines" -- are placed at the beginning of disc one, new material is clumped near the middle and the end almost haphazardly. As a result, Bobby Peru's "Into the Feeling" and FPU's "Crockets Theme" almost get lost in the shuffle. But New York City's feather-haired W.I.T. duo makes up for screwy sequencing with the bare-bones electro of "Hold Me, Touch Me."
Disc two fairs better, opening with the tech bop of "Pump Up the Volume," by M/A/R/R/S, before moving on to Felix da Housecat's remix of Playgroup's elegiac "Number One." Scandinavia's gus gus leaves its rock roots far behind with the boom-chaka-boom of "Dance You Down," and new romantic vet Gary Numan ends the proceedings properly with the Detroit anthem "Cars."
This duo's Resuscitation appears to be more fully realized conceptually than musically. The beats demonstrate the group's home-computer functionality as well as its desire to mimic early-'80s favorites such as Grace Jones and the Eurythmics. The lyrical punch of "Minors at Night" and "Dispassionate Furniture," focusing on jailbait love and handsome furnishings, respectively, suggest that Adult. has a firm grip on electroclash imagery. If only it can score a good producer for its sophomore effort.
Tech-Pop: 21st Century Electro and New Wave
(Ministry of Sound)
One of the best compilations currently filling up media bins, this disc opens with scene leader Fischerspooner's "Emerge," a creepy, marine-sounding track that rolls treated vocals about "hyper-media" and the joys that come when something "Looks good/sounds good, feels good, too" into squelchy yet digitally sharp programming. Console follows with "14 Zero Zero," a popping beat mix with pretty keyboards that almost cover up the robotic delivery of the lyrics. "Candy Girl," by New York City's Soviet, is pure new-wave bubblegum, while Waldorf's "You're My Disco" wears its early-'80s pop on shimmering sleeves.
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New York Muscle
A slight EP, New York Muscle garnered some notice when it was released in 2001. But this beat-box duo has yet to prove itself with a full album. Still, the mix of hip-hop vocal delivery and fuzzy keyboards on "Champion Chains (Be Nice mix)" has created a small niche for A.R.E. Weapons in the larger schema of New York's scene. The group's nods to street bums and boxing recalls the DJ Hell-driven incarnation of the genre in the late '90s.
Light & Magic
(Emperor Norton Records)
Probably the best "band" to emerge from the new electro genre is Liverpool's Ladytron, a foursome that borrows heavily from Stereolab's retro take on art music. But the disco-rock kick of minor hits like "Playgirl" and "I'm With the Pilots," both from the group's 604, showcase an original talent coming into its own. A keener focus on electronic elements informs Light & Magic, a bold statement of intent that traps the slippery magic of digital composition with a poppy ease. The perky, bouncing "Seventeen" features the depressingly astute lyrical declaration that "They only want you when you're seventeen/When you're twenty one, you're no fun." Regardless of age discrimination, these twenty-somethings probably have the best chance of surviving an electroclash backlash.