Astralwerks has had a definite problem these last few years. After making a name for themselves as the preeminent venue for mainstream electronic dance music in America, attempts toward diversification in the form of multiple alternative rock acts failed to build on previous gains. While acts like Sunna, Simian and the Band of Bees flailed and drowned in the American market, the label was unable to synthesize the specific formula of college buzz and indie cred that made modest mainstream successes out of stalwart independent and pseudo-independent labels such as Matador and Sub Pop. Sure, the Chemical Brothers and Air could always be depended on to shift a few hundred thousand units, but both of those acts (as well as most of their other electronic staples) were inherited from parent company Virgin. What was the label, besides a really cool logo, a handful of well-established popular acts and a bunch of filler destined to end up in the cut-out bins of college-town record shops? Not a lot.
And then a funny thing happened… VHS or Beta came along and had some modest success with their debut album, 2004’s Night on Fire. It would perhaps be specious to imply that this one act was anything more than a singular success, but the fact remains that VHS or Beta represented, in one fell swoop, everything that Astralwerks had been trying to accomplish for many years: they were an authentically American band (from Kentucky, of all places) with a dance-rock hybrid sound that seemed honestly of the moment. You could almost hear the high-fives at Astralwerks HQ when the rave reviews started to pour in from the music press. They may not have been the White Stripes, but hey, it was a start.
And, of course, whenever a new band experiences even modest success, the heretofore-unknown back catalog gets trotted out for good measure. The Le Funk EP was originally released in 2002 on the band’s own label, and it appears here with the full bells & whistles treatment. But I think anyone who runs out to buy a copy of Le Funk on the strengths of Night on Fire will be sorely disappointed.
Which is not to say that the EP is bad, simply… unexceptional. The music here is pretty much straight French disco, albeit supported by guitars and a less rigidly punctual rhythm section than that utilized by the likes of Daft Punk. The new wave influences that marked their debut full-length are almost totally absent. The songwriting here is designed solely for the dance floor, with none of the pop tendencies that would mark later mark the group.
There’s a song called “Disco Paradise” that seems to have been named without a trace of irony—it’s got the slap-funk guitar line of Chic and the vocodored vocals of the aforementioned Daft Punk, but the equivalent is not so much funky as it is latter-day jam band. There’s not a lot of variety here: “Solid Gold” follows “Disco Heaven” and is very, very similar—so much so that if there weren’t a breakdown between the tracks, it would be hard to tell where one began and the other ended.
The disc’s sole saving grace are the three remixes of “Solid Gold” tacked onto the end. As unpromising as the raw materials may be, Bob Mould, Freaky Chakra and Iz all deliver funky, propulsive reinterpretations of the track. Mould’s version is hard and percussive like the best French house, while Freaky Chakra provide a more Americanized house sound, with thunderous, slapping New York garage rim-shots. Iz makes something a bit more cinematic out of the piece, with moody keyboards and a shuffling deep house beat.
I’m not going to say that the remixes redeem the disc, because they don’t—they’re pretty good, but hardly phenomenal. I imagine VHS or Beta completists—if there is such a thing—will enjoy the look at the band’s formative years, but the rest of us can easily live without hearing this profoundly superfluous band juvenilia.
// Notes from the Road
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