[9 March 2009]
Vancouver singer/songwriter Jeremy Shaw stands out amongst the steadily increasing stream of electronic music producers relocating to the creative hotbed of Berlin. His Circlesquare solo-project-cum-three-piece-band has resisted the prevailing sound of techno that defines much of the city’s nightlife, producing a new album of finely crafted electronic pop songs that are, as per the title, all about dancing and drugs.
After a long affiliation with Trevor Jackson’s now defunct Output Records, which came to an end in 2006—when the label shut its doors just after the release of Circlesquare’s excellent Fight Sounds EP—Shaw relocated to Berlin, formed his new band, and signed with influential label !K7. While he has very much stuck to his own unique sound, Berlin’s permissive party atmosphere may very well be the inspiration for this album that is, in his own words, about “the great parts and the inevitable decline” of dance culture and drug culture.
Musically, Songs About Dancing and Drugs simultaneously looks to the past while existing wholly in the present. ‘80s new wave synths are present throughout the whole album, as are Cocteau-flavoured dream pop, ambient sounds, and Circlesquare’s trademark low vocals, finger snaps and handclaps, slide guitars, and danceable electronic beats. Less technically, both the music and the lyrics evoke the best and the worst of club and drug experiences: elation, intimacy, euphoria, attachment, loneliness, bewilderment, frustration, and apathy.
The opener “Hey You Guys”, seemingly an obvious candidate for final track honours, is a peek into someone’s psyche at the end of a too-long night, stuck “wide awake and abstract, ideas blur with flashback”. Constructed around a pulsing, bare bass riff, ambience, and tiny electronic pulses, the track also introduces one of the best elements of Shaw’s vocals: he knows the limitations of his voice. In this track and several of the others on the album, he sings in accompaniment to, rather than against the instrumentation, and the subtle use of multi-tracked vocals and delays make for a rich and layered atmosphere.
If “Hey You Guys” represents the end of the weekend, the album’s lead single “Dancers” is the 4 AM peak, a perfect marriage of live instrumentation with electronic production, executed with subtlety and a lack of flashiness. It bubbles under, just short of the boiling point, with a hypnotic guitar lick here and a few key stabs there, a throbbing bass, and occasional filtered industrial noises. Combined with Shaw’s quietly measured but intimate vocals, the effect is of having him singing softly in your ear on a sweaty, packed dance floor.
A weary and disaffected dancer is apparent on “Timely”, looking for change as the “weekend means nothing anyway when there are millions of uncharted beaches for goodness sake / And we have so many movies we want to make”, delivered calmly over dreamlike ambient fug, punctuated by little more than finger snaps, claps, and some dirty electronic pulses. “Music for Satellites” is melancholy, remote, and ominous, the spacey bleeps and emotionless repeated chant of “all got lost out there” making for a modern day “Space Oddity”, and it’s more than a little reminiscent of Radiohead’s ability to harness electronic production and temper it within an instrument-based song structure.
The album’s least successful moment comes via “Ten to One”—play-by-numbers electro-pop with an inane wordless chorus, strained vocals, and overbearing beats, but thankfully it is a minor blip on an otherwise fantastic record. On the flip side, one of the most successful elements of the album is how certain songs sound completely different at the end than they did at the beginning. “Stop Taking (So Many)” starts as a shoegaze ballad and finishes with a Kraftwerk-style electro beat with robo-vocals repeatedly demanding “some smashing techno”. And “Bombs Away” is nothing short of sublime, morphing seamlessly from a dreamy lullaby through to bleeping minimal electronica, and building to a crescendo of Bacharach-style horns.
The 13-minute epic closer “All Live But the Ending” starts with an awkwardly disjointed dance beat and a sense of panic where “the shakes won’t go away all day”, and in same breath “lets all go out dancing tonight because this will take some getting used to”, but then settles comfortably to a rumbling indie dance-style beat. That gradually builds to a sophisticated and purely electronic trance-like peak, then gently back down to an acoustic outro, signing off with “In the end, after all / That anybody really needs is art and music”.
Songs About Dancing and Drugs is already a surefire contender for 2009 end-of-year lists, and Circlesquare is an artist that I will happily leave my dance card open for in future.