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Booka Shade

The Sun and the Neon Light

(Get Physical; US: 26 May 2008; UK: 26 May 2008)

Beware the “mature” techno album ahead. Electronic artists tend to be their own worst enemies, reinforce their own worst stereotypes, and justify their worst, most puerile critics who suggest a song without vocals, a backbeat (opposed to a pulse), and a recognizable song structure can’t be art, can’t be adored by the masses, and hence isn’t “real”. As if filtering your own style through a facile formula would automatically gain you credibility with a narrow-minded lot who already know the record they want to listen to before they pick it up.


Booka Shade, three albums in, already feel like old souls on The Sun and the Neon Light, two years after lighting up dancefloors with “Body Language”. The thing reeks of AOE (the electronica counterpart to AOR), which means high variety and occasionally low discretion. The vocals in particular seem botoxed with the crevices of late-era synthpop (not always a bad thing), even as vivacious knob twiddles and unexpected samples creep and churn in the mix behind them. Some of the instrumentals even seem to gain an intrepid momentum and Olympic stride before passively whimpering out and hailing a taxi back home.  Hence, they either stop short or start where they perhaps shouldn’t have.


Booka Shade have always been known to be boldly economical studio mavens. Comprised of members Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier, one can always expect a Booka Shade record, for better or worse (though usually better), to be the product of fine German engineering. The consistent leveling and dynamic compression, usually the detriment of other peer groups, generally worked to Booka Shade’s favor in past recordings, almost as if it were made by an augural Pandora-like interface, distilling favorable and unfavorable sound temperaments into cold yet irrefutable equations.


All that studio thaumaturgy is still present on The Sun and the Neon Light, but as Booka Shade’s bid that they’re human after all, the calculations here come off with a less-than-wholly organic equation that feels flat, not taking into account the wild variation that comes with raw human contact. Sure, the album is host to myriad wonderfully novel sounds heard nowhere else, but there’s a distinct lack of presence that Movements and Memento did not require, but The Sun and the Neon Light seems to desperately longs for. Their dexterity for synoptic passages does not seem to be communicating with their new found and outwardly pop ambitions.  That said, there’s a wealth of perfectly enjoyable material on The Sun and the Neon Light hidden under these hindrances. It just takes a little way to get there.


Booka Shade intentionally clubfoot themselves though by starting out with weak, gimmicky tracks. “Outskirts” employs the German Film Orchestra’s string section for a Moby-style chamber workout like they were vying for mid-‘90s Astralwerks contract. “Dusty Boots” is another tepid early album number that veers off The Sun and the Neon Light‘s mostly grim pathways towards the ranch for a tinge of ill-advised humdrum country-western gallivanting.


I’m always a tad disappointed when electronic artists risk their reputations to pick up a microphone only to find that they have nothing to say. I guess it’s unfair to expect genius to spout out of formerly mute maestros, so I’m willing to overlook many of Booka Shade’s lamer laments on loneliness and lovelorn listlessness on The Sun and the Neon Light. What is unforgivable though is the addition of overaffected David Gahan-esque crooning to an otherwise splendidly hot electro-R&B ditty like the soft synth ballad “Sweet Lies” or the ominously lurching “Psychameleon”. One could easily come up with a short list of micro-all-stars (Jamie Lidell, Sally Shapiro, Junior Boys frontman Jeremy Greenspan) whose cautious delivery could have better suited Booka Shade’s rigorous and ornate production on these tracks.


The album skimps slightly on danceable cuts too, but “Charlotte” is an essential sand-toed beach banger that might help hearten those feeling desolate about the state of the Booka union. It’s regrettably brief, but ever moment in the track is to be relished. It too contains vocals, but perhaps ironically, its aerated vocoder robotics breathe a human warmth into these cuts not unlike Black Moth Super Rainbow’s psychedelic oral maneuvers.


Most of the remaining instrumentals sound like incidental film themes from the dawn of synth-scoring in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Some are not developed enough to be gratifying outside of the context of their imaginary source material. The rest find just the right balance between filler and feature. “Redemption” is like a Jan Hammer-style Miami Vice stakeout theme informed by house music, while “Planetary” injects some throwback deep moog bass Goblin-esque synths into its interstellar travel. The title track likewise essentially works off a perverted take on the Doogie Howser MD theme, using NPH’s doctor’s office for some kind of psychotic anti-Hippocratic malevolence a la John Carpenter (a big influence, if we’re to believe his appearance on two of the tracks from 2007’s Booka Shade DJ Kicks mix disc).


The juxtaposing sun and neon represent the choice between the organic and the synthetic. If Booka Shade don’t feel appreciated enough as a purely electronic act, it’s our own damned fault for letting the pressures of the verse-chorus-verse organic hierarchy set in. We need to show our instrumental non-pop electrohouse acts that they’re loved before they go try to prove themselves in some silly commercial act of desperation, or, like Booka Shade have done here, a partially crossed-over compromise. I suggest you grab the next electronic artist you see, give them a great big hug, and say to them “stay neon, pony boy”. Stay neon.

Rating:

Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his wife, his daughter, his dog, and two cats. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.


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