Nearly the Cat’s Meow
The double album. It’s daunting for an artist to have enough material to fill two discs, and the history of pop and rock music has only a handful of double albums that truly work, as problematic and indulgent as even the best of them may be. The White Album. Something/Anything?. Zen Arcade (though I do prefer Warehouse: Songs and Stories). Daydream Nation. And there may be a few others, but for each of these gems there’s a Todd or Tales from Topographic Oceans waiting in the wings. This year, the electronica genre has decided to be ambitious and generous in releasing some material in the double format – already, the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual has made waves. And entering into the fray of the double is French electro artist Miss Kittin (aka Caroline Hervé) with her sprawling Calling from the Stars, a two CD set that runs about an hour and three quarters. The final song on this 23-song collection is called “I Don’t Know How to Move”. You might feel the same way, too, overcome and pummeled with sheer exhaustion by the time you’ve run the musical marathon known as this record (or records, plural).
That’s not to say that Calling from the Stars isn’t an interesting concept: It’s actually split evenly between a first disc that’s very pop-oriented with radio friendly song structures, and a second disc that’s more experimental, less vocal and beat-focused. The schism between both discs may have the skeptical wondering why these records weren’t split up and released as separate entities, for they do play as two very different albums. And some have indicated that Calling from the Stars might have worked better if material from both sets were winnowed down and compiled onto one disc. Personally, I think disc one would have been a perfect standalone, and the more indulgent disc two would have made a fine EP. But there’s no denying this fact: Calling from the Stars, for all of its pretentiousness and indulgences, is a bold artistic statement. You certainly get your money’s worth here. And, despite the set’s major failing – that there’s just too much to take in in one sitting – you do have to admire Miss Kittin’s gumption and the fact that a great deal of what’s available on this double album does work and works rather well. Calling from the Stars elevates the electro formula to a new artistic level, even though it is a merely rather ambitious pop album in disguise. Still, this should be Miss Kittin’s calling card from here on in, especially considering she’s better known as a collaborator: She worked with the Hacker to produce a single called “Frank Sinatra” that preceded the electroclash era, and her vocals also appeared on Felix da Housecat’s “Silver Screen Shower Scene” in 2002.
So what doesn’t work on Calling from the Stars? Well, Miss Kittin isn’t the world’s greatest lyricist: “Life Is My Teacher” is full of platitudes that might work better on a Hallmark card. (“Life is my teacher / Every day I learn / Every day I wake up / I learn to listen”. Ugh.) And nestled at the very end of disc one is a music box cover of one of the great ‘90s alterna-rock songs: R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”, a choice that reduces the drama and bombast of the original into a tiny pop ditty. It doesn’t really work without Michael Stipe’s over-the-top vocals and full-on orchestration. And disc two is a challenging listen that is, on one hand, invigorating, innovative and interesting, and, on the other, is full of avant-garde fluff: “Cosmic Love Radiation” comes across as silly and overbearing. In fact, the second disc is one that seems to outpace the first disc upon first listen because it’s all the more ambitious, though it doesn’t quite hold up to repeated run-throughs due to its abstract nature – you might find yourself reaching more often for the pop gems of disc one because they’re all the more digestible.
But, for every misstep, there are two or three songs that pick up the slack. “Maneki Neko”, so named after the Japanese good luck charm in the form of a waving cat (I have one of those on my windowsill), is delectable, even though it’s less than three minutes long. And the French lyrics of “What to Wear” gives the track a foreign feel in all of its sleek, pulsing throb. As well, the opening three songs of the first disc – “Flash Forward”, “Coming Into My House”, and “Bassline” – might be as close to a near-perfect trifecta of dark pop to hit wax this year. “Eleven” is interesting for name-checking a certain song by the Eurythmics, so there’s a broad reach that this album has in making it retro-cool and palpable to those who like ‘80s synth pop. As for disc two, there are a number of standout pieces: “Tamarin Bay” might be the most memorable of the bunch with its glitchy beats on top of sparkling keyboard lines that glimmer like a cityscape lit up at night. Its follow-up, “Sunset Mission”, feels as though it could score a Ridley Scott sci-fi themed actioner.
In fact, a great deal of Calling from the Stars plays like a Gary Numan record – a “good” Gary Numan record (The Pleasure Principle comes to mind) – with all of its night-life thudding and electronic rhythms. It’s both a dark album and one that feels oh so good: Even at its most oblique, Calling from the Stars is divinely listenable and approachable. While it might have played better if it had been halved, there’s still enough here worth listening to in all of its alternating accessible and experimental bombast. While Calling from the Stars may not be The Wall except in the way it browbeats you with song after towering song, as far as double albums go, it ain’t bad. It’s not going to garner the accolades of Shaking the Habitual, but there’s enough here worth exploring to make this double disc a pretty good listen. The album is, you can say, virtually the cat’s meow, which should make its feline-themed creator purr in merry contentedness.