2007’s been a big year for discopop, and part of it was Sally Shapiro’s doing. We can blame James Murphy and the influential After Dark compilation on the disco side, and Kathy Diamond on the pop side, for part of it. But it was Sally Shapiro, the Swedish phenomenon who, under the vigorous guidance of writer/producer Johan Agebjorn, put out the artist album that caught most attention. Transcending the influence of the original Italo disco acts from the ‘80s that Agebjorn cites as influences, together the two have been able to craft a sound that’s a breath of fresh (if wintry) air among the dirty squelch of electro’s current dominance.
But though she’ll likely be lumped in with the nu-disco movement, Shapiro stands apart from it, too. Much has been made of Shapiro’s reticence—she hasn’t as yet revealed her real name, and continues to shy away from the possibility of performing live—but if we didn’t think of her as an artist this wouldn’t really be an issue. We don’t expect the anonymous female vocalist from that song off the latest Ministry of Sound compilation to perform her stuff live; if Shapiro were only a vehicle for Johan Agebjorn’s nu-disco thump the same would be true. But Disco Romance is so great partly because it gives Shapiro a distinct character. She’s lonely, snowbound and slightly melancholy. Her introspective voice hides behind bright, sunny beats but harbours a very personal, introspective emotion. In this sense, Disco Romance is as much an indie electropop album in its own right as a nodding tribute.
Shapiro built up reputation off the 2006 single “I’ll Be By Your Side”, which kicks off the American release of Disco Romance in an extended mix. The song still sounds fresh, giving you that guilty pleasure and making you wonder how such a fragile, intimate thing could be a dancefloor hit at the same time. The now-familiar melancholy rings stronger through the track, Shapiro’s communication that it’s through this bright/open music that she finds welcoming arms when everything around is dark/lonely. When, two thirds of the way through, Agebjorn modulates up a tone, tongue firmly planted in cheek, the opposing music and vocals momentarily come together, the best of dance music’s cathartic elation.
The U.S. version of the album includes three new tracks, largely written not by Agebjorn but Roger Gunnarsson. The mood of these three is substantively similar to Agebjorn’s own material. Even if it’s a bit simpler musically, the similar instrumentation and arrangements make the new material slot right behind the old. Particularly notable is “Jackie Jackie (Spend This Winter With Me)”, which expands from a great soliloquy on the way “normal people” love (and why none ever fall for Shapiro) to an insanely catchy italo disco chorus (“Jackie Jackie I still wait by the phone / Oh, Jackie Jackie I don’t want to be alone tonight”). The song’s built for Top 40, built for carefree Eurotrash dancefloors. The other new material has a hard time matching that graceful pop glory, existing in a darker musical landscape of low-end synths, mid-tempo drum machine and Shapiro’s now-sung, now-spoken vocals.
Nevertheless, listening to Disco Romance through provides enough variety to satisfy the most impatient of disco bunnies. From the almost gothic, wide bass sound of “Hold Me So Tight” to “Anorak Christmas”‘s shining, front-forward beats, the tracks each fill their extended lengths with laid-back poise. Shapiro often has a childish lilt to her voice that, on “Anorak Christmas” at least, sounds like Annie. Mostly, she’s just herself, a step removed from the chugging accompaniments, but always compelling.
It’s Shapiro herself who makes Disco Romance notable. If the music doesn’t quite have the complexity of Trentemoller’s solo compositions, awareness fades beneath Shapiro’s forlorn and unaffected words. Unlike the vast majority of dance vocalists, there’s no hint of sexuality in her voice at all. But her delicate beauty’s more than enough.