[11 May 2008]
The past five years have seen scores of post-punk revivalists come and go. Few, however, have chosen to reinterpret the poppier side of the genre’s spectrum, preferring Joy Division’s dirges to the sunnier sounds of, say, the Pet Shop Boys. It makes sense. The London duo and their club-bound kin infused their music with conga percussion, faux choirs and tinny horn sections. All are techniques which sound laughably dated. These are not generally sounds that we like to remember outside of ‘80s-themed bachelorette parties or the occasional shower karaoke.
This phenomenon can be traced throughout rock and roll. You’ll always find more bands who list the Velvet Underground as an influence than the Mamas and the Papas. The Velvets are cooler because they were forgotten and inaccessible. It’s easier to build on these underground sounds and repackage them for a new audience. Not so with tunes that are so unabashedly pop in the first place; not tunes that are still haunting our FM radios through the ‘80s Retro Drive Time Flashback Countdown with Barb and Doug.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to just ape Gang of Four? Why would a modern indie-rock band want to associate with this fluff? And that’s exactly what the Foxglove Hunt has done. It’s right there on their MySpace page. Influences: Frankie Goes to Hollywood. How many bands are ready to admit to that? The nostalgia doesn’t stop there. The band actually shipped out a promotional 3.5” floppy disc containing their lead single. Adorable.
Rob Withem’s breathy vocals, which somehow manage to sound piercing and gauzy at the same time, mesh perfectly with the band’s synth-driven sound. His injured songbird voice lends an element of melancholy to otherwise ebullient songs. Withem also contributes fine guitarwork that doesn’t sound too far removed from his output in the now-defunct Fine China.
Ronnie Martin contributes everything else, for better and for worse. He’s honed his electro-pop sound for nearly two decades as Joy Electric. He has shown a steadfast dedication to pure, monophonic synth, refusing to incorporate drum machines or any other instrumentation into his songs, resulting in workmanlike machine pop. Joy Electric’s clockwork melodies, while certainly poppy, evoke a methodical dedication. Here we find no such loyalty to his craft. He unleashes his fondness for the sonic palette of his favorite synth-pop touchstones. The uncharacteristically polyphonic bleeps and bloops gallop along in nostalgic abandon.
What saves Stop Heartbeat from being an ‘80s tribute album is Withem’s ear for original melodies. The best ones rival “Melt With You” and “Take on Me”, with unique chord progressions that stick. The album’s finest track, “Business Casual”, features everything corny about ‘80s synthpop, but by the time the awesome chorus is out of the gate, you’ll be clapping along with the MIDI trumpets. “The Mayflower Compact”, however, is an exercise in retro-fetishism that falls flat. The unoriginal synth riff overpowers everything else in the mix, reducing the tune to a sickly sweet morass.
Stop Heartbeat is ultimately a likeable, if unadventurous, record that manages to recapture what was so great about those new pop songs: a keen sense of melody and an ironic sense of humor. In the rare cases when those anthemic melodies are absent, the songs are rendered forgettable. Rob and Ronnie do not venture far beyond emulating their heroes. But you have to give them credit for having the guts to take on such un-hip source material. Foxglove Hunt pulls it off with panache.