Sometimes an act is simply at the right place at the right time making the right sounds. It’s difficult to say whether they’re creating a new scene and infusing it with their vision, or are simply products of their environment, reflecting the culmination of their surroundings back out as something concrete and visceral. As the 20th century came to a tense close, Fischerspooner were one of the most high-profile acts to merge futurism and commerce in the Williamsburg scene that gave rise to electroclash, a sound that was simultaneously retro and starkly forward-thinking. But it’s been five long years since the birth of the 21st century, and just as long since we’ve heard a completely new project from the group…
If you’ve heard any of the advance press on Odyssey, you may have heard that Fischerspooner’s latest disc is a warm, organic rejection of the cool, digital synthpop that characterized their debut. You may have even heard that Fischerspooner has invested its music with the influences of ‘70s AM radio and artsy prog rock. Well, if those ideas intrigue you or disappoint you, either don’t get your hopes up, or don’t worry about it. Odyssesy is still, for better or for worse, a synthpop album.
Not that there hasn’t been a shift in the duo’s sound since #1. Rather than the end-of-the-century robotic cool of the then-forming electroclash scene, Odyssey helps move Fischerspooner into the territory of their progenitors—the musically pop realm dominated by Erasure and Pet Shop Boys. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The problem with Fischerspooner’s debut album was that it was eclipsed by Fischerspooner’s performance art stage shows. Despite the critical praise heaped on #1 at the time of its release, its impact was made along with Fischerspooner’s performance presence. In fact, it’s debatable whether or not the album was the best example of the electroclash scene, despite the fact that their live performances may have been the best example of the scene’s potential realized. These days, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that #1 is more of a soundtrack than an album of its own self-contained material. And that’s the reaction supported by the music. While “Emerge” had an extended run of dance floor success, outside the club scene the most marketable song on the album was Fischerspooner’s cover of Wire’s “The 15th”. Simply put, removed from the stage spectacle, the music lost some impact.
But the cover of “The 15th” also provides a sort of pathway to the direction taken on Odyssey. That the electroclash aesthetic is rooted in the synthpop of the ‘80s is old news, but rather than clumsily trying to rehash the same sort of aggressive futurism that other electroclash artists got looped in, Fischerspooner has simply embraced the pop elements of the past as well. And unlike some of their peers, such as Freezepop, who humorously play with a campy sort of retro irony, Odyssey is a serious album, with music meant to be taken seriously.
And the best thing about Odyssey is that it succeeds in this quest. Including production help from Mirwais and Tony Hoffer, lyrical and melodical input from Linda Perry, and even the unlikely piece co-written with the late Susan Sontag, the disc aims to be more than companion piece to the group’s live shows. As such, it has plenty of singular highlights that simply work great as songs in their own right. The first single from the album, “Just Let Go”—already remixed a half dozen times before the full length has hit the shelves—is probably the most familiar thing on the disc. Pulsing with electronics and the sort of flat vocalizations that characterize much electroclash music, this is Fischerspooner’s continuation of #1, but in the crackling and combative electric guitars, the song takes on a new, rockier persona than their debut.
But things really start to stretch beyond the icy synth tones with “A Kick in the Teeth”. Sure, it’s built on computer tones and processed beats, but it arrives with a full-fledged pop presence that most closely resembles Pet Shop Boys, despite its alleged homage to Steve Miller and Pink Floyd. The scrambled-beats fade-out is certainly something well beyond whatever the “Space Cowboy” ever attempted. “We Need a War”, the aforementioned Sontag contribution, has a real sense of menace that gives the usually surface level of Fischerspooner’s music some real depth in these political times, though it’s actually spookiest in that the intended irony is almost lost in the straightforward delivery.
Tracks like “Happy” and “All We Are” have a sort of transcendent electropop feel to them that shows Fischerspooner moving into the ranks of dance-pop royalty alongside New Order and Depeche Mode, while something like “Ritz 107” shows the band had the ability to subvert the expectations of the sound in some pretty interesting and engaging ways. And like #1, Odyssey includes an off-beat cover, this time of the Boredoms’ “O”. This closing track takes Odyssey out on a renewed sense of computer futurism, space synths evoking the cosmic experimentations of the ‘60s and, more than at any other point on the album, evoking the work of early Pink Floyd, as well as latter-day psychedelic experimentalists.
But for all that, Odyssey remains an album of a kind. Fischerspooner hasn’t re-written the playbook with this one, even if they’ve managed to somewhat reinvent themselves. Of course, when it comes to synthpop in general, there aren’t a whole lot of variations possible, which is a part of the reason it never maintained longevity in the first place. If you still cherish your copies of Techinque and Behavior, you’ll probably welcome Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner into the ranks of Clarke and Bell, Tennant and Lowe, and Sumner and company; if you haven’t already. And in that sense, the Odyssey is over, and Fischerspooner has arrived. Just don’t expect them to win Penelope’s hand back just yet.