Miss Kittin & the Hacker’s eponymous First Album (2001) was a bare-bones onslaught of the burgeoning electroclash sound of the time. Appropriately released on DJ Hell’s International Deejay Gigolo label, Miss Kittin (aka Caroline Herve) delivered vocals that rarely left the mold of monotone chants, like a commanding Big Sister from a dystopic disco, while the Hacker’s (Michael Amato’s) backing was all tinny drum machines and faded analog synths. Despite its confrontational nature, singles like the jokingly potty-mouthed “Frank Sinatra” (“To be famous is so nice / Suck my dick / Lick my ass”) established the duo as masters of their cold craft. Miss Kittin’s gone in a few solo directions since First, most recently delivering the gothic-tinged Batbox, before reuniting with the Hacker for Two, their second collaborative full-length.
The duo still sound kind of like a long-lost, underground Eurodance group from the former Soviet Union, which is fantastic news for fans of First. This time, however, the presentation is more approachable. Even the art gives it away: while the cover of First featured a black and white photo of the Hacker pointing a small pistol at a prone, nurse uniform-clad Kittin, this time it’s a dark line-drawing of the two, with piercing eyes that betray romance beneath the exterior. Musically, both parties are going to previously unheard territories of the collaboration, as Amato buttresses his squeals, tics, and squelches with encompassing synth bubbles and layers of fat bass, while Herve actually sings, sometimes even suggesting vulnerability, cracking at the shell of the cold and calculated femme fatale she played last time around.
As always, sexual politics are something the savvy Herve can’t help but address, particularly in a genre like dance music, where women are so often placed in the role of disposable pixie, rather than artistic chanteuse. Herve is unquestionably the latter, as she asserts, “I am not / A silent woman”, on “The Womb”, a slow burner that starts off the record, adding “All women to the front!”. The real surprises start a few tracks in, with “Party in My Head”, a single that finds Herve sounding almost diva-like over the most massively non-gated bass drum the two have ever laid down. It’s a Moroder-esque floor-filler, set for that post-peak pre-comedown part of a night, the one where the body high is still so strong that being blanketed in cliché lyrics and husky panting feels perfect. Two makes it clear that Miss Kittin & the Hacker cherish the sanctuary of a strobe-lit floor.
“Emotional Interlude” exemplifies the other kind of new idea thrown out by Two: these are tender human beings, not just the coldly sexual creatures we might see or hear. “Take off your attitude”, pleads Herve, sounding more vulnerable than ever, even as she drops from singing back into chanting, to whisper, “We all feel mute / Under our suit”. Amato plays another one of his signatures here — the distant, reverberated synth — to great effect, sounding out the desperation and longing to complement Herve’s voice. Herve finds what she’s looking for in another vein on “Suspicious Minds”, acknowledging the opposite of “Interlude” — sometimes we get along best with those who’d never really let us in.
Two is as nakedly honest and lush an album as either party involved has made. Whether it’s the aggressive cool of “Ray Ban” or the ethereal romancing of the aforementioned “Suspicious Minds”, the record is a fantastic progression for Miss Kittin & the Hacker, managing to preserve what made them great partners in the first place, while gracefully maturing into something more multifaceted and emotionally open.