Norwegian duo Datarock were feted in the early noughties for delaying the demise of electroclash and masquerading as bellwethers of the disco punk revival that brought you Scissor Sisters’ Ta-Dah, Mika and the like.
Donning hooded tracksuits and silly wraparound shades, Fredrik Saroea and Ketil Mosnes were superficial millennial Devo incarnates materialising from the cool of Bergen. Their tongues placed firmly in their cheeks, they had a field day playing faux gay to the bemusement of critics and listeners alike. Profoundly lacking in the lyrical and conceptual gravitas, nay genius, of their heroes Devo and Talking Heads, the lo-fi parodic sexual glam of Datarock Datarock (with Saroea’s Bowie warble providing arousing lubrication) made it a novelty that was open to being marketed as just that. Indeed, lead single “Fa-fa-fa” hit the jackpot as song of choice for Coca-Cola and numerous sporting cash cows like FIFA 08. Yet Datarock Datarockplugged into a conceit that post-punk helped elevate: it was released on the duo’s own imprint Young Aspiring Professionals.
Coming four years later on Nettwerk, Red is the duo’s infatuation with the ‘80s with triple exclamation marks. References to ‘80s pop culture are liberally sprinkled on tracks like “Amirilion” (“Take me on/take on me amirilion”) and “Molly” (yes, that’s Molly Ringwald) and “True Stories” (which lifts all its lyrics from Talking Heads song titles). But unlike Datarock Datarock’s sexed-up wayward kitsch, Red has a whimsical Ballardian menace about it in which the duo’s beloved ‘80s and the online future meld into one epoch with a big question mark hanging over the result. This void of certainty seems to be hinted by Red’s cover art. In place of the garishness and computer-type of Datarock Datarock’s packaging is the balefully hooded Saroea in shadow bearing his guitar against a red backdrop.
Red was probably meant to run rings around listeners while the duo wore the Cheshire’s cat grin beneath their pokerfaces. Unfortunately it doesn’t really make the cut. The vast majority of the tracks – failing to resound once their two-to-three minutes are up – fail in making the album’s loony leitmotif sufficiently unnerving or wry, and therefore memorable.
The album’s curtain raiser does, however, linger post-listen. With a stadium-sized punch, “The Blog” suspends the listener in the thick of Datarock’s ambivalence to the wired age. The track swipes the immortalised guitar riff from unlikely source “Sweet Child of Mine” and synths it up over the din of a cheering crowd while an impenetrable computerised soundbite bears down like a robot featuring in this Blade Runner 3000 soundtrack. Documented snippets exhorting the virtues of the web, MySpace, Youtube and other networking inventions then reel in over some ominous scuzzy guitar filler. The lyrics are inaudible, though, as if Saroea and Mosnes were yelling while keeping their lips barely parted.
An ‘80s blitz then ensues, beginning with the somewhat odd “Give It Up” that has the duo giddily bearing cheek. It’s a space effects and jangly guitar laden disco jive that ends just under three minutes with Saroea indulging his inner schoolboy with “We’ll hook you up with an enema/Don’t stop until you get enough”. The silliness continues with the aforementioned “True Stories” with its flashing-lights synth sparkles and guitar spurts, and “Molly”, an unhinged ode to Saroea’s “girl of my dreams”. Both of these somewhat thematic pop songs have the novelty value of the latest figurines offering at McDonalds: they’re fun on the first couple of plays and then it’s onto the next thing.
The second half of the album slowly strips away the frivolity beginning with “Fear of Death”, which features spoken musings about, well, one’s existential demise over middling disco beats and Strokes-like candy riffs.
With Red pilfering the ‘80s time capsule and licking it clean—at least to the point before testing the listener’s patience – it’s hard to see where Datarock can take us next. “Fear of Death” seems like the band’s admission that its raison d’etre, so singular it risks obsolescence, will vaporise in a cloud of dry ice. As Datarock say eulogistically on Caribbean riddim-meets-Ultravox “Back in the Seventies”: “How sick it would’ve been / To be there / In the middle of the past / And the future / You’d know it couldn’t last”. Perhaps album closer “New Days Dawn”, a teetotal downtempo hangover from all that went before it, offers some clues to the band’s direction. If so, brace yourself for Sareoa impersonations of Frank Sinatra.