A quick look at the tracklist to renowned German DJ Headman’s latest “artist album” On, and it might be easy to guess that “Balearica”, the track that Headman’s Robi Insinna put together with The Rapture’s Matt Safer, is the best song on the album. And it is. “Balearica” is the sound that the entire album strives for, a genial mix of ‘80s artistic sensibilities and modern production techniques, plenty of room for the mix to breathe, and lots of ad-libbing from a vocalist who runs out of things to say halfway through the song. “Balearica” is a fun little slice of retro-dance madness, a little something that any fan of The Rapture could easily find a way to enjoy.
...and as far as good news goes, that’s just about all I’ve got.
The other side of the spectrum, then, would be the vocal stylings of one Tara Narayanan, who can hold pitch, but not much else. The third track, “On and On”, features some of the most annoying vocal tics to be heard in any human voice this side of Tori Amos, and the Narayanan-voiced cover of Marilyn’s now-obscure mini-hit “So Disgraceful”...well, that one kind of writes itself, doesn’t it? You see, her voice has this deadpan, vibrato-less feel that would sound just fine if she was singing atop an acoustic guitar about her feelings. The problem is, this is music that is supposed to make you want to move, make you want to get up, get out, do that thing, and so on. Ms. Narayanan makes me sleepy.
Not that she’s helped all that much by Insinna’s mostly banal backing tracks. Part of the aforementioned charm of “Balearica” is the space in it, the fact that every instrument occupies its own spot in the mix, always perfectly clean and never obscured by other sounds that might clutter its own personal sound. The bass guitar sounds like bass guitar, the synths sound like synths, and so on, and that’s great, except that in most of the other tracks on On, Headman trips over his own feet while trying to stay out of his own way. “Moisture” is fast-paced and jaunty, but there’s no power in the sampled drums, and once you get past the bass guitar and occasional guitar strums, there’s really not much to be found. Anton Spivac does an admirable job trying to save the song with an energetic, “Why Can’t I Be You?”-style vocal, but hard as he tries, he simply cannot compensate enough for a backing track whose mood, represented graphically, would look like the aftermath of a cardiac arrest: flatline. Similarly, Soulwax’s Stephen Dewaele does his best with the Depeche Mode-aping “Roh”, but the percussive track just doesn’t give him much to work with—the sounds are forgettable at best, and just plain irritating at worst.
Perhaps predictably, Insinna saves his best instrumentals for the tracks that don’t bother with vocalists, thereby confirming the idea that vocalists are used here as a crutch. “Upstart” doesn’t start terribly promisingly, what with its oversimplistic bass-snare beat, but once the synths and the cowbell show up, you get the best Information Society instrumental that Kurt Harland never wrote. This is, if you were wondering, a good thing.
Headman by himself is not always a recipe for success, however, as evidenced by the horrific “Do U Feel”, which, besides its cringe-inducing title, sounds too much like Joy Division and New Order to be an effective homage to either. And for the love of God, Robi, put down the microphone. You are not Ian Curtis.
Obviously, the number of visible, retro-style influences that pop up as part of On points to an album that’s either a) horrendously unoriginal, or b) an homage to a bygone era, an era when synthesizers meshed with flamboyance to create some vital, wonderful music. In reality, it’s a little of both: an homage to the ‘80s that would be fine if it were done with a consistent vision and/or a sample set bigger than the one on a 20-year-old keyboard. Headman sounds like an adequate DJ who simply doesn’t know what to do when his buddies come over for a go ‘round in the studio, but who lets them have their say anyway, content to surround them with mediocrity. On is utterly half-cooked.