[30 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In the days before selective downloading, the phrase was fairly common. “There’s a great EP in here,” you would read in an album review, and the implication was clear. There were some good, maybe great songs, but not enough to sustain a full-length record. If the artist or label had only trimmed the fat, they could have had something special. Alas, the best bits were dragged down by the surrounding filler.
Well, there’s a great EP to be had from The Great Escape, the debut album by the German synth-pop band Claire. In this case, though, that EP was actually released. Broken Promise Land came out in late 2013 as a primer for the album’s North American release. A five-song set of crisp Euro-synth-pop, it added little to the suddenly omnipresent genre’s aesthetic, but it was catchy, crisp, and nicely produced and arranged.
The US version of The Great Escape reprises three of the five Broken Promise Land tracks. The European version, which came out in 2013, features four of them. In both cases, the first three album tracks are culled from the EP, in the same order. Why? Because labels tend to front-load albums, especially debut albums from pop bands, with the strongest, most radio-friendly material. Yes, even in the age of digital downloading. And the first three tracks on The Great Escape are not just the strongest, most radio-friendly, and catchiest. They outshine the rest of the material on the album by some way. Unfortunately, they end up serving as the exceptions that prove the rule, and the rule is that The Great Escape as an album is just not that good.
As for that trio: “Broken Promise Land” is a cool, evocative, moody slice of midtempo atmosphere that chugs along like Donna Summer as fronted by Enya. Not surprisingly, it has been remixed by the man behind Summer’s sound, disco legend Giorgio Moroder himself. “Games”, meanwhile, is simply upbeat, ebullient synth-pop the way it was meant to be. Made of staccato synth stabs, a 4/4 rhythm you can dance to, ecstatic backing effects, and silken-voiced Josie-Claire Bürkle’s assurance that “it’s all right / As long as I’m with you”, it’s the perfect cure for your summer synth-song jones. After that rush, “Pioneers” is there to bring you back down by sending you out into space, all wide-eyed and full of wonder.
As for what follows: it ranges form “not bad” to “bad” to “what were they thinking?” “You Walk in Beauty” is actually a pretty decent synth-pop track, too. But its thick, lumbering beats are the first hint of Claire’s ill-advised affinity for incorporating hip hop into their work, an affinity which eventually yields the album’s nadir. First, though, come some passable synth-ballads. Too many of them, for sure, though “Neon Love” captures some of the sheen and guilelessness of very-early Depeche Mode or Yazoo. “Overdrive” is proof it’s best just to let Moroder remix you rather than try to sound just like Moroder yourselves.
All this is done with the same crisp production and authentic sounds, though, so it’s at least enough to keep you wading through, hoping for another gem. With that opening salvo, there has to be one, right? But then “The Great Escape” subverts all the joy and ebullience of “Games” with pure awfulness. In a battle for most grating motif, Seven Dwarves-like chanting of “Oh-wuh-oh!” battles with Bürkle’s scolding repetition of “This is a place… we’re on our own” to a draw. “Resurrection” tries, and fails, to get funky and then… the nadir.
“The Next Ones to Come”, one of Claire’s first European singles, starts off as a harmlessly vapid synth-anthem, a perfect soundtrack to its campy-cool post-apocalyptic Street Fighter video. Wasn’t this featured in Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender? No, no, it wasn’t, because then Bürkle, erm, “raps” “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge…” It can’t be, it just can’t. “…I’m tryin’ not to lose my head!” It is! It’s a German synth-pop band interpolating Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s immortal 1982 street violence lament! Whatever good intentions might lurk under the surface, it’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds. Every bit.
And then The Great Escape is over. What has happened to the smart, tasteful synth-pop band of 13 songs ago? They’ve disappeared. But at least they’ve left a great EP in there… somewhere.