During musical periods when no single genre dominates, artists often look to earlier styles for inspirations -- and judging by Electro Nouveau and We Are Science, synth pop, that most quintessentially '80s of approaches, is getting ready for another close-up. Whether this news is good or grisly is up to each human to decide. But what's ultimately cheering about these discs is the willingness of the artists who made them to tweak the past, rather than being held in thrall to it.
As its title implies, Electro Nouveau is a two-CD smorgasbord of synthetic possibilities, many of which straddle tribute and satire. "Euro Trash Girl," a cover of a Cracker tune by Chicks on Speed, is a deadpan goof complete with affectless recitations about an "angel in black" over the cheapest rhythm track imaginable, while Ladytron's "Seventeen" sports vintage keyboard tones and amusingly overwrought lyrics ("They only want you when you're seventeen/When you're 21, you're no fun") that are whispered through a Vocoder.
Retro references abound: Shortly after Mount Sims climbs into one of Gary Numan's cars wearing "Black Sunglasses," Laptop nods to Heaven 17-esque ice funk on "Greatest Hits." But there are also moments in which flashback feelings are given a fresh spin. Xero 6's "Gale Winds" is a hyperactive opus that blends electro-diva warbling with enough beats per minute to satisfy the most hyperactive raver; Freezepop's "Plastic Stars" juxtaposes hooky synth-splats with singing that's charmingly low-key; and Bis's "The End Starts Today" gives Depeche Mode drama a cheeky twist. Overall, Electro Nouveau catches a new generation in the midst of discovering how tasty sonic cheese can be.
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We are Science is a more serious piece of work, as befits a performer with a history of innovation: Allison was at the center of One Dove, whose 1993 album, Morning Dove White, is widely regarded as a techno landmark. Her latest effort is only her second solo outing (following 1999's Afterglow), but her easy confidence and consistent inventiveness suggest that she's been on her own for ages. Consider the opener, "We're Only Science," which employs a chugging groove that might seem overly familiar in other hands. However, Allison reinvigorates it via a clever arrangement marked by occasional Arabic touches and fatalistic words ("Look into my eyes for the last time") that she imbues with a doomy grandeur. The result is a chill-out track that's truly chilling.
This formula is just as effective on subsequent cuts. "Substance" pits Allison's tender pleadings against mechanized cricket chirping; "You Can Be Replaced" comes across as a threat wrapped in velvet; and "Make It Happen" explores the dangers of seduction via the robotic delivery of lines like "How does it feel to know that this is real?" Along the way, Allison proves she's not a slave to technology with "Wishing Stone," a lament that finds her keeping company with that most antiquated of instruments, an acoustic guitar.
So strong is Science that defining it as synth pop doesn't seem quite right. But if Allison's offering is a harbinger, the return of this sound should be embraced, not feared. Come back, Flying Lizards. All is forgiven.