Over the past few years, the underground synth pop scene has been getting more and more attention from the mainstream media. Acts like Fischerspooner, Chicks on Speed, Peaches, Miss Kittin and the Hacker, and most recently, Ladytron, have been trying to revive the old, synthesizer-heavy sounds of Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, and New Order, with more emphasis on high art and fashion. Nearly all of these bands, branded with the tag “electroclash” (swiped from the New York music festival of the same name), recycle all the new wave clichés that we had thought long dead: stilted, bored-sounding singing, two-note melodies, cheaply minimalist beats, the vocoder (an old techno staple), and irony. Lots and lots of irony. Oh, and some of those silly-looking keyboard guitar things that Thomas Dolby used to play as well.
Electroclash (yes, I’m using the soon-to-be-tired label . . . I’m a music writer. I’m lazy), though, has yet to spawn a real classic, a genre-defining masterpiece. Heck, with the exception of the inimitable, foul-mouthed Peaches, whose The Teaches of Peaches I give a mild recommendation, I have yet to hear an electroclash album that’s even listenable all the way through. What the genre has given us, though, is an impressive batch of quality songs that work very well on their own, like Miss Kittin’s “Frank Sinatra” Peaches’ “Lovertits”, and Chicks on Speed’s “Glamour Girl”. Electroclash is a genre that practically begs for the ultimate compilation album, and the Moonshine Records label has made a valiant attempt, with the release of Electro Nouveau: Tech, Synth Pop, and Nu-Electro. Unfortunately, despite several real highlights, what this new compilation manages to show us in the end is how redundant, boring, and irritatingly pretentious this music can be when done badly.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fun stuff here. Chicks on Speed’s “Euro Trash Girl”, originally released a couple of years ago, with its steady beat, the barest hint of a bassline, and the Munich trio’s blasé, spoken delivery, typifies the dry humor of this music, as they snidely tell a first-person portrait of, well, you know. 2002’s electroclash “It” group Ladytron are represented by their outstanding song “Seventeen”. The song has a simple, catchy keyboard melody (mildly reminiscent of Blur’s “Girls and Boys”), the sultry vocals singing, “They only want you when you’re 17 / When you’re 21 you’re no fun”. Gary Flanagan’s “Metro Boulot Dodo” is a tasty helping of Parisian-style art-rap, which is a bit disconcerting when you learn that Flanagan resides in the small Eastern Canadian city of St. John, New Brunswick. Count 2 Infinity’s “Popism” is a rather good blend of synth pop and trance music, while Northern Lite’s remix of ‘80s nightmare Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Everybody Loves You” actually improves on the original. New York duo Xero G’s “Gale Winds” is a more hyperkinetic tune, and “Neon Rain”, by Ganymede, is decent, old-fashioned pop music. Felix Da Housecat’s “Madame Hollywood” shamelessly rips off New Order, but it’s done very well and quite catchy, evoking memories of the movie version of Less Than Zero.
Some songs on Elecro Nouveau stand out over everything else. UK synth pop veterans (and creators of the Powerpuff Girls theme, I might add) Bis are along with their gorgeous “The End Starts Today”, a luxurious combination of pretty vocals, languid beats, and layers and layers of synths. Things get decidedly more simple on American trio Freezepop’s minimalist “Plastic Stars”, easily the catchiest, and cutest, song on the compilation. Miss Kittin’s collaboration with Goldenboy, called “Rippin Kittin”, is a great little dance song with a dark, seedy feel (“Mommy / Can I go out and kill tonight / I feel like taking a life”). Laptop’s “Greatest Hits” is phenomenal, a real winner, sounding like Brian Ferry singing over a wickedly funky P-Funk groove, complete with a great Bootsy Collins bassline done on synth. The lyrics are hilarious, as a guy clumsily explains to his girlfriend that she possesses all the best qualities of all his former girlfriends combined (“You’re a ‘greatest hits’ / You’re a ‘the best of’ / You include only the best cuts”), but winds up royally ticking her off instead (“‘Wait, honey, come back.’ / ‘What, so you can keep talking about your skanky ex-girlfriends?’”).
Still, the clunkers on the album just drag all the good ones down into the muck. Spray’s “Living in Neon” is by-the-numbers vocoder wanking (“Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1982” . . . Kill me. Kill me now). This kind of music, which gives yours truly horrific flashbacks of Neil Young’s Trans album, should be left buried forever. “Spaceship”, by Sean Kosa, has more boring, robotic vocals, sounding dangerously close to that “Sandwiches” song by the Detroit Grand Pubahs. Nukleon’s whiny “Lucky” sounds like Morrisey sitting in with Depeche Mode, and Neonwork drag out that confounded vocoder one more time on “La Invasion”. Bis’s “Robotic (Adult, Almost Instrumental Mix)” sounds tedious compared to their other contribution to the album, and FPU’s muddled cover of the old Miami Vice soundtrack tune “Ocean Drive” is unbearable. Scraping the bottom of the barrel is Mount Sims, whose “Black Sunglasses” is completely unoriginal, pretentious, and laughable.
Electro Nouveau wants to be the definitive electroclash compilation, but it goes on too long for its own good. If the best cuts were pared down to a single CD, it would make for a terrific listen, but instead we’re stuck with only 11 songs on a 23-track album that are worth listening to; hardly worth the price of a double CD. Besides, as a rule, every synth pop compilation should have at least one Peaches song.