This is an electronic pop album. Most people will probably enjoy it on that level. But for those that know its context, the album may come as a shock: This is an electronic pop album by two techno geniuses, Stewart Walker and Marco Tonni. The hip-hop analogue might go like this: Long-silent DJ Premier steps out from behind the mixing board and records himself rapping over beats by the Neptunes—in their N.E.R.D. guise. Purists won’t like this album.
Then again, vocals have been hot in techno lately. Producers are either getting on the mic themselves (Ellen Allien, Safety Scissors), or getting others to do so (John Tejada, Alexander Kowalski). And ever since the Postal Service (re)kicked down the walls between analog and digital, hordes of guitarists have stopped looking for drummers and started shopping for soundcards.
But this is Stewart Walker we’re talking about. This is the guy who practically wrote the book on techno as background music. Stabiles and Reclamation: 1997-1999 were sleekly minimal classics, the sonic equivalent of lowercase Verdana font. Even his dancefloor-oriented live performances (captured to an extent on 2003’s Live Extracts) are coolly intense, more feet than hips. However, Walker founded Persona Records “with the sole intention of bringing personality back into the genre of techno”, and this year’s marvelous Grounded in Existence was more red-blooded, with breakbeats and the occasional song structure.
Still, it’s jarring to hear someone who’s been mute for eight years suddenly burst into song. And you know what? Walker’s voice isn’t half bad. It’s a little awkward, and it wavers sometimes, but he has a gift for catchy vocal melodies and fluid songwriting. Anyway, over production this good, it would be tough to sound bad.
Walker contributes production on some lush pop numbers, as well as a lovely, all-too-brief instrumental, “Continental Divide”. But for the most part, he’s playing on Tonni’s home turf. Earlier this year, Tonni, under the name Touane, released Awake, a richly melodic blend of acoustic guitars, found sounds, and electronic beats. It’s his sound, rather than Walker’s trademark minimalism, that permeates this album.
The songs here are mostly relaxed, downtempo, and curiously twangy. Imagine Charlie Sexton with an acoustic guitar and a ton of VST plug-ins, and you’re halfway there. The last half of the album is full of futuristic campfire songs. “Guitar Fishing” has a quietly bubbling groove and unabashed string squeaks, while “Breakfast at Sophia’s” is pastoral in that indie-movie, reversed-audio sort of way.
The first half of the album is more poppy, and more memorable. “In the Open” is low-key, twangy electro-pop; the uptempo “Cage of the Frame” recalls the Postal Service. “Walk on Bones” is so futuristic it’s retro, with its over-the-top vocoder. But “Checkerboards” is the pick here. Its acoustic guitars and vocal melodies owe a huge debt to Electronic, Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner’s collaboration in the ‘90s. At 4:20, a delightfully bouncy groove drops, leading into the next track, a short instrumental of the song. The instrumental is basically just a rideout groove for DJ’s to mix with—someone please make a full dub version!
But Walker isn’t catering to DJ’s here. Bring Back the Buffalo “was the result of playing live techno on the weekends, and then watching a thunderstorm while listening to Elliott Smith on the iPod in the back of a Skoda”. For someone whose name is synonymous with instrumental techno, taking the mic is a brave move. Walker has made some of the best nighttime music there is; it’s nice to see him let in some daylight.