[13 January 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s something inherently creepy about obsolete technology. If you’ve ever shared space with a dusty old IBM computer or a hulking, out-of-tune analog synthesizer, you know the uneasiness they inspire. If you haven’t, try taking a stroll through the electronics section of your local thrift store, and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe it’s the coldness of all the wires and plastic and metal. Or maybe it’s the realization that the technology in your home, office, and pocket will soon enough meet a similar fate. But if there’s nostalgia, an equal measure of dread isn’t far behind.
Does this same phenomenon apply to music made with that musty, obsolete technology? 1980s nostalgia mania made its way into the independent dance music scene some time ago, and you can’t have ‘80s music without hulking, out-of-tune analog synthesizers. The Brooklyn duo of Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, aka Metro Area, have been applying vintage electropop and disco sounds to their modern electronica for nearly a decade. For their entry into the Fabric series, though, they skip right to the source. Fabric 43 is packed with sounds that are, quite literally, from the ‘80s. All but one of the nearly two dozen tracks hail from that decade, most slotting in between ‘80 and ‘85. This is the soundtrack to your night at a particularly hip nightclub, circa 1986. And sure enough, for all its charms, it’s a night you’ll eventually want to run from.
Metro Area have tried to counter the “retro” and “nostalgia” tags. They’ve focused more on the esoteric side of ‘80s nightclub culture, and broadened their palette to include an international mix of boogie, disco, electropop, and house music. They’re not too proud to sprinkle in a few well-known pop classics, though. Metro Area’s efforts and relatively good taste ensure that Fabric 43 is nothing if not interesting to listen to. You get electro-boogie like World Premiere’s “Share the Night” and Atmosphere’s “Swede’s Scandal”, and the late-disco of Skratch’s “You Should Have Known Better” and Voyage’s “Souvenirs”. There’s the Latin-tinged, percussion-heavy groove of Ray Martinez’s “The Natives Are Restless”, the proto-techno of Data’s “Blow”, and the early tribal house of Plez’s “I Can’t Stop”.
Unfortunately, the fun level of Fabric 43 peaks with the first track, where Geist and Jesrani exhort one another to “rock some flute lines”. Their introductory banter recognizes the potential for cheesiness in anything ‘80s, and by making fun of it, they clear that particular elephant from the room. But not even Metro Area’s good sense of humor can remedy the preponderance of electronic handclaps, squiggly synths, and dry drumbeats—and the horrible, Steve Winwood-recalling lead synth on the Disco Four’s “Move to the Groove”.
From a musical standpoint, Fabric 43 does uncover a couple “hidden gems” that bear repeated listening. Skratch’s “You Should Have Known Better” gets into a nice evocative bass groove. Play By Numbers do an effective version of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine”. Best of all, though, is Five Special’s “Why Leave Us Alone”. The actual American R&B hit from 1979 is a lean, mean slice of boogie, with all the chicken-scratch guitar and staccato strings you could hope for. From a historical standpoint, a couple tracks stand out as well. The dub version of Barbara Norris’s “Heavy Hitter” shows just sonically close American electro-funk and British synth-pop could be. The track could easily pass as early Depeche Mode. Likewise, Midway’s “Set it Out” illustrates the mutual fondness between NYC club culture and New Order.
On paper, all this sounds pretty good. And, as far as a broad yet experimental-leaning selection of 1980s dance music, Fabric 43 is very good indeed. Geist and Jesrani have taken care to make this their personal mixtape to you, adding beats and executing edits to ensure things flow along as smoothly as possible.
But there’s still that other elephant in the room. Ultimately, the dust-caked sounds, bundles of wires and patch cords, and dented aluminum have the day. That creepy feeling creeps in and the fun runs out. It’s telling that the most consistently enjoyable parts of Fabric 43, and the ones that sound least dated, are the electro pop hits. Al Jourgensen’s fake, British-accented, look-at-me-I’m-selling-out “Haaaeey!” on Ministry’s “Work for Love” will never lose its charm, nor will Glenn Gregory’s deadpan cynicism on Heaven 17’s “Penthouse and Pavement”. No amount of obsolete technology will ever curb the rock’n'roll charge or Mark Mothersbaugh’s enthusiasm on Devo’s “Freedom of Choice”.
Nearly all the other tracks on Fabric 43 are instrumentals or dub versions. But maybe it’s no coincidence that it takes human voices to shake the dust out of this mix. There’s nothing technological about it.