[17 August 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s got to be hard being a straight-up house or techno act in 2010. With the commercial and arguably the artistic peak of that type of music more than ten years in the past, there’s a strong sense that everything there is to say has been said already. DJs and record labels keep adding adjectives like “minimal” and “tech”, just barely staying ahead of the backlash. In such circumstances, that the German duo Booka Shade could enter the game in 2005 and make a name for themselves is something of an accomplishment.
It’s a bit sad, then, that Booka Shade’s music is gradually, continually becoming more populist and less distinguished. That’s the case more often than not on fourth album More!, whose very title seems like wishful thinking in a couple different ways. It’s trying to conjure up the energy and excitement that accompanied the electronica boom of the late 1990s, and it’s also an implication that the band has something different to say. You could add “But wait! There’s…” to the title and you’d have a better sense of how hard Booka Shade seem to be trying to close the deal. And though More! fails to live up to that exclamation point, it goes down easy in a way that makes repeated listening painless, if not revealing.
If only some of the songs worked as well as their titles. “Havana Sex Dwarf” opens with a voice making the not-so-original claim, “I feel like such a consumer whore”. What sounds like a detuned gamelan gets thrown in with the beats. Then, the track is overtaken by a second-rate “Funkytown”-type descending riff, and Booka Shade’s populist intentions become all-too-transparent. “Scaramanga” is named after the memorable James Bond villain, but can’t manage more than a tried-and-true synth pattern to go with its bump’n’grind. The lesson is well-executed pap, but pap nonetheless.
Ironically, More! has more to say on its less clubby numbers. “Donut (Interpretation)” sets up a spacey, mid-tempo groove, and compliments it with as effortlessly catchy little funk riff. Daft Punk did this years ago, sure, but it’s still a nice throwback. “Regenerate” generates whatever pathos the album has with a whispered female voice and a powerful coda that dies out much too soon. Closer “This Is Not Time” provides a nice, end-of-the-night vibe. Again, this is territory covered years ago by the likes of Chicane, but it works. You can’t even say that much about completely inconsequential tracks like “The Door” and the all-too-accurately titled “No Difference”.
The nadir comes with the single “Bad Love”. Booka Shade are clearly going for a radio/club hit here, employing classy yet nondescript vocals by Chelonis R. Jones and a sleek electro rhythm. Yet, whatever the track had going for it is undone by the “shout out the name of the song” non-chorus.
Leave it to Yello, those old hands at truly innovative techno-prog, to deliver More!’s high point. With a simple minor-key electric piano and ticking clock, “Divine” isn’t exactly heavenly, but it’s sinister in all the most pleasant ways. There’s Dieter Meier, his deadpan delivery as strangely charismatic as ever. It’s Meier’s genius that he can make a simple word such as “minutes…” sound like an urgent, secret message. It’s tough to say exactly what Booka Shade had to do with “Divine”. The song sounds like pure Yello, and it’s too bad little of the Swiss duo’s character rubbed off on their German collaborators.
Booka Shade will always have their status as co-founders of the much-respected Get Physical label. With More!, the impression is not that they’re coasting on their reputation and resume. Rather, it seems they’re struggling to stay afloat in a dance music world that is constantly changing and seemingly more underground than ever.