by Shailesh Rao


The Soul of a New Machine

For the past few years the term “‘80s revival” has retained a somewhat narrow definition, usually reserved for Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and other wash-ups lucky enough to find themselves on a Hits of the ‘80s compilation. If you spent any number of your teenage years in that fine decade, and could see beyond the shadow of Mr. Casey Kasem, you should know that there are a host of other bands worthy of investigation if not all out homage. Ladytron are clearly up to this task and their first full-length effort, 604, earns them an A+ as students of rock history.

With electronica establishing itself as the aural zeitgeist of the 21st century, many members of the avant indie scene have moved toward electronic instrumentation, digital production, and now indispensable tools like the sequencer. This slow burning shift has inadvertently cracked open a once cursed vault of music history—the post-punk, anti-rock, synth pop of New Wave.

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(Emperor Norton)

Enter Ladytron. Vinyl clad and vampish, this international electro-pop outfit stands proudly behind their vintage keyboards, rhythm boxes and New Wave lineage. Combining the Euro-trash flair of Stereo Total with the dance-pop sounds of electronic music’s yesteryear, Ladytron produce a sound that parallels fellow neo-synth rockers, Chicks on Speed. But, as with any talented, schooled and crafty artist, such comparisons do little justice to their overall cultural project.

Finding inspiration in the often maligned movement of ‘80s keyboard bands, Ladytron is susceptible to the caveats lodged against those original new wavers—the tendency to be derivative, over-produced, and lacking in a more human spirit. Perhaps Ladytron did pick up their drum machines at a recent garage sale or unearth their dusty keyboards from the storage closet, and yes, the hand claps and electro-chimes will remind you of the DJ’s play list at your cousin’s bar mitzvah or sister’s sweet 16. But, and this is where it gets interesting, Ladytron’s bricologic resuscitation of early electronic pop music is less retro than it is futurist—604 rescues the edginess, ecstasy and optimism of electronic music’s origins and re-situates them in our at times numb, almost aseptic contemporary musical landscape.

604 will invigorate you. It will get in your head and pump through your body. Play it loud and you’ll find yourself dancing in the mirror, wearing a subdued look of genius, and once again toying with your teenage dreams. Often, the album plays like the background soundtrack to an elaborate noirish video, evoking dark wet streets and enigmatic figures dressed in black—shades on, slicked large-ish hair, walking in slow motion and speeding through the night. Mysterious and cool in the most ninth grade way.

604‘s adrenalized electronic pop, while simple in its composition, elicits memories of not only a personal, but also a cultural childhood. More than a simple throwback or testament to intertextual hybridization, Ladytron don’t merely relive a crucial musical coming of age, they re-stage New Wave’s futurist leanings to reflect the post-millennial world through the cavalier, cocky and fantastical immortality of adolescence. Ladytron play off this youthful naivete, reaching into the social unconscious of the ‘80s in hopes of moving listeners, not just to the supersavers bin at your local record store, but in a way that is intellectually, physically and emotionally compelling.

Distancing themselves from the at times demeaning kitsch factor associated with the revivalist label, Ladytron seem to have a more serious mission—to reconnect electronic music, and more importantly pop music, with a forward facing, humanist spirit that operates as equal parts avant garde innovator and purveyor of playful pleasures. Also, they refuse to step in line with the self-mocking ironic affectations of “serious joke” Pomo pranksters like Trans Am and the Make Up. Ladytron may be well-read, culturally savvy consummate rock historians but their brand of Retro-Futurism is more than just another form of detached hipsterism. There is a real passion here. I would venture to call it a soul.

Whereas most recourse to the annals of rock history results in nostalgic strolls down memory lane or cataclysmic chiliasm heralding the end of culture, Ladytron re-brand the darkish synth sound of the ‘80s creating a frenetic pulse-quickening electro-pop. They transplant New Wave sentiments without devolving into a simple patchwork pastiche of the past. With a moniker borrowed from ultra-progressive, glammy art rockers, Roxy Music, and 604‘s pseudo-feminist send-up of Kraftwerk’s “the Model”, Ladytron are quick to pay respect to the pioneers of modern electronic musicianship. Their influences, however, like their lyrics—which run the gamut from cultural studies mantras to snippets of post-global soap operesque romance, are both high-brow and purely pop—as 604 is blessed with generous traces of Soft Cell, OMD, and New Order.

But before you dig up your Depeche Mode posters from the basement or bust out your tape of “Bizarre Love Triangle” re-mixes, you should realize that Ladytron is more than your standard atavistic synth-band. 604 is an engaging and entertaining blend of liberating naivete and empowering innocence that instills a human identity in a genre that is too often seen as austere and robotic. By dipping into the not too distant past Ladytron manages to re-ignite the futuristic visions of the early ‘80s in a way that is fun without being funny, smart without being pretentious, and emotive without being mawkish.

Topics: ladytron
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