[5 May 2009]
A lazer beam from a sultry siren
Pneumatic bass and panned saxophone
A young girl and an astronaut babbling
The purr of synths and video games beeping
A fair number of the artists associated with the electroclash moniker meld new wave, hip-hop, and ambient and punk (usually vocals) elements. Le Tigre’s drum-machined rock-raps, for example, have riot grrl roots (and thus punk influences). The foul temptress Peaches’ electro base is mediated by rap and punk/rock (or on her latest release, even a vocal flirtation with soul). Others lumped into electroclash also shift these variables in one way or another. That has always left Fischerspooner, despite the commonality of a basic electro fetish, a bit apart. Their relationship to late ‘70s and ‘80s electronic pioneers is much more mediated by New Wave electro-pop than deconstructed pop becoming ambient, industrial, and or techno; more OMD, Scritti Politti, Human League, and early Depeche Mode than, say, Art of Noise or Nitzer Ebb. This much awaited third album, Entertainment, finds Fischerspooner going more electro pop than ever before.
Is production time a measure of artistic labor? Probably not in any ultimate sense (any more than Ezra Pound’s 14-word “In a Station of the Metro” is less art than T.S. Eliot’s three thousand-plus “The Waste Land”). Yet there’s something to be said for the relationship between time and composition. Composer Warren Fischer and singer-lyricist Casey Spooner’s first album took three years to make. Their second, two. Four years after Odyssey comes the third (recorded over a two-year period). Say what you want, but their albums don’t suffer from a lack of careful labor. However, time a quality album does not make. So what is the result this time?
Fischerspooner’s third labor of love is not as electronic as their first, and not as rock as their second (which featured a full live band on stage, guitar, drum set and all), but a kind of polished poppier combination of the first two. They also use acoustic instruments on this record, though in ways they’ve admitted are more controlled or “plastic”. Perhaps this polished plasticity is owed to producer Jeff Saltzman (who has previously produced acts like the Killers and Black Keys).
The album thumps, bleeps, and zaps out the jams with “The Best Revenge”, a promising opener replete with repetitive bubbly synth riff in the chorus, reminiscent of the opening of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”, which is overlaid with horns and saxes. Horn flourishes might as well be ripped right out of a Sufjan Stevens composition, and the “Hey, Ohhoh” background vocals against the synth-disco beat give it a tres Alison Moyet flair. That said, the lyrics are consistently mundane-to-mildly-enigmatic. They seem to be about resentment and/or fantasies of revenge, though an inner-conversation or a reference to someone else is not clear: “(Hey, oh) Where is your smiling face / (Hey, oh) Say hello to a world of disgrace / (Hey, oh) How long will I wait / For the best revenge / I am / I am / I am.”
On “Supply and Demand”, Fischerspooner begin with a sample of a PBS Nova episode on the historic 1968 Apollo 8 lunar orbit, an astronaut theme that begins and ends the album. Spooner has complained about the straitjacket of American pop music. Is this an analogy to duo’s musical daring? “To me, the idea of going to explore a new planet far outweighed the fear of something going wrong,” astronaut Lovell exclaims in the sample. “Yet there is much that can” counters the narrator, his final word placed in echo mode while bass gets layered upon it and the track takes off into a pop direction that seems to belie the weighty introduction. “I got supplies, you’ve got demands, I’ve got the feeling you don’t give a damn,” Spooner croons in a chorus recalling the Pet Shop Boys’ “I’ve got the looks, you’ve got the brains / Let’s make lots of money” in “Opportunities”.
This track, like the others, is ever about the art of layering. Its slightly funky four-note riff becomes the core of the song (recalling, say, Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”), disappearing for the verse, while laser beam sounds are panned alternately with backup vocals to the side. The song’s composed of fairly simple elements, which are put together in hardly simple ways. In that sense, Fischerspooner’s compositions move far beyond their New Wave synth-loving influences.
While the whole album is a formidable dance elixir, there is also a kind of minor-key gray feel hovering over many tracks (in sound and sometimes lyrics), which seem to be at rest before injected with stimulants, like a plain glass of water that reacts to a tablet of Alka-Seltzer. In “Door Train Home” the vocal drones apocalyptically, “This is the place / This is the time / This is the end of something”, while a vaguely Eastern guitar interjects an omen. The extremely bubbly hooks of “In a Modern World” are offset by the singer’s somewhat cynical contemplations: “What’s real / What’s fake / It’s hard to relate / It’s impulse / That’s all you can trust… In a modern world it’s hard to be heard.”
“Money Can’t Dance” continues the astronaut (muffled “Major Tom” homage?) theme, sampling NOVA again, this time with Eugene Kranz, the Director of Mission Operations at Johnson Space Center: “I was absolutely mesmerized by what was going on. I mean, sitting next to him in Mission Control throughout the maneuvers, and all of a sudden you find out that—my God, the crew has left the Earth’s environment. Okay, it’s now on the way to another planet for the first time, so holy cow, this is something.” The electronic gurgles commence before Spooner proclaims, “We’ve somehow spent too much time staying in line… It’s too late for someone like me.” However, the consolation appears to be dancing. “Just get on up,” Spooner commands like James Brown. ” ‘Cuz currency can only do so much / And it certainly can’t dance,” he concludes. In a dramatic acceleration and crescendo Spooner adds, Ain’t got no arms / Ain’t got no legs / Ain’t got no eyes / Ain’t got no head / There’re some things I can do / and I can’t.” What to make of these themes of distasteful resignation consoling itself in music and dance? Did the singer spend too much time saluting the norms of middle-class life instead of the dictates of almighty creativity? Or is it because he did the latter that he just doesn’t fit in to the rat race?
The album ends on an ambivalent note, returning to the astronaut theme. In “To the Moon”, the vocals convey a kind of listlessness that is again counterbalanced by driving electronic loops and rhythm: “I’ve begun again / Oh well, so here we are again / Oh well, my friend / Everywhere I’ve been / You’re there in the end / Pulling me aside / I’ve always known.”
In addition to the astronaut theme and the oscillation from cynicism to contemplative melancholy that ironically infuses the albums hyper-catchy music, there are a couple of curious French tracks. Just the title “Amuse Bouche” would surely annoy some first-time listeners to Fischerspooner, as it refers to a bite-sized hors d’œuvre in the nouvelle cuisine movement, which especially emphasizes the artistry of presentation. “It may be strange and a little bit frightening / An acquired taste but very enlightening / A hint of this and a drop of that / Lick your lips and don’t look back / Amuse bouche”—with a low-gear beat consisting of two eighth note cymbals and a quarter note rim shot. Are they referring to themselves, to their music, to any art they think is worth a look and listen? Who knows, but it’s not deep… man. Not a brain-tingler lyrically, but “Amuse Bouche” will amuse tush.
“Danse en France” pushes the pretension meter higher—most of the song is actually in French. Their campy lyrics are just silly enough to escape major rebuke, though they put them on the level of Andre the Giant and Wallace Shawn’s couplet in The Princess Bride: “No more rhyming now, I mean it / Anybody want a peanut?” Seriously, compare Spooner rhyming (translation) “What’s going on here” with “I need to pee”: “Qu’est-ce qui se passé ici? J’ai envie de faire pipi.”
Fischerspooner are two artf**ks who met doing time at the Chicago Art Institute, first performed in a Starbuck’s, and are beloved by gallery goers and fashionistas, in addition to considerable electro-pop crowd that may not necessarily overlap with the first two categories. Fischerspooner are on record adoring “the surface” of music, art, and fashion. Yeah, that will be annoyingly pretentious to some and the object of identification and solidarity for others. Add to the above their appropriation of Morrissey appropriating a handful of others appropriating Marx and Engels in an otherwise extremely trite “Infidels of the World Unite”. What they have to lose is apparently their insincerity, according to Spooner’s pseudo-intellectual pondering on what seems like Al Qaeda-like violence in the name of a lofty ideal: “Why would you want to do it? / Doin’ wrong in the name of right / You’re no fool you’re no innocent / Using God to justify your own fight / It’s denial, manipulation.”
If you’re looking for the wordsmithing of Morrissey, Buck 65 or Rhett Miller, forget it. If you have a disdain for pretentious artistes but are looking to dance your ass off while imbibing delicious pop hooks and mostly simple though by no means run-of-the-mill pop lyrics, then just hold your nose and let yourself go: Entertainment vous plaira.