What do you get when one of the most innovative dance producers working today tackles one of the most irritating music trends in the last 30 years?
In 2008, Hercules and Love Affair released their self-titled debut, which became one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. It was the brainchild of New York composer-producer Andrew Butler, who enlisted the tremulous singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons) to warble out most of his impossibly catchy earworms. Together, the pair created a sleek sound that sat somewhere between vintage 1970s disco and LCD Soundsystem: indebted to its roots, no doubt, but not confined by them.
On Blue Songs, Butler's follow-up to the darling that was Hercules and Love Affair, he shows the same penchant for futurist beat craft and compellingly androgynous vocalists. Unfortunately, the strides Hercules and Love Affair have made in the right direction are mostly canceled out by some puzzling choices scattered throughout the album. Kind of like Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat. You know -- two steps forward, two steps back. The most egregious of these choices is Butler’s dismissal of disco in favor of a more contemporary dance hall powerhouse: early '90s house. In many ways, the club music being made in the late '80s and early '90s is the logical successor to disco; after the punk-infused electronic of New Wave, the R&B-tinged house music that topped the charts returned to disco's opulence and flamboyance. But unless you're feeling extra-nostalgic for (or even tolerant of) acts like Ace of Base, Haddaway and Right Said Fred, Blue Songs is going to be a haul for you. It's like spending an hour with the brothers from A Night at the Roxbury, painful head jerks and all.
The switch-up briefly seems to work for Hercules and Love Affair on opener "Painted Eyes", perhaps because the DNA of the song is still heavily rooted in the disco that made the group's debut so enjoyable. Venezuelan singer Aerea Negrot does a more-than-passable Hegarty impression, and the string hook that pops up throughout the song gives it a great '70s vibe. But the rest of the time, you end up with songs like "My House", the lead single you swear you remember from 20 years ago. It's easily the most memorable thing here, and there's honestly plenty to like: the hook is catchy, the beat is very danceable, and all the synth and organ stabs immediately call to mind the best, cheesiest songs of the "Everybody Dance Now" era. But singer Shaun Wright's vocals are uncomfortably off-key, seemingly on purpose. And Butler and company squander their good graces by peppering the beginning of the song with joke sound effects from a Casio keyboard, then filling the last minute of the song with ridiculous, inexplicable scat noises.
Elsewhere, the process seems similar: take a solid beat, apply wonderfully goofy synths liberally, and then do something to screw it up a little bit. "I Can't Wait" sounds like a cross between the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack and what you’d hear playing in a laser tag arena; it vacillates between endearing and irritating, but the tuneless, enervating vocals tip the scales fully toward irritation. The acoustic mid-album change-of-pacer "Boy Blue" could have been a nice palate cleanser if it weren't so boring and new age-y, and album closer "It's Alright" painfully shoots for social consciousness with lyrics like "Dictations enforced in Afghanistan / Revolution is in South Africa takin' a stand".
All told, Blue Songs isn’t exactly a bad album. It's just disappointing. Andrew Butler and his collaborators clearly have an idea of what they're doing, and sometimes the results are pretty enjoyable. But if Hercules and Love Affair was an example of how to do a dance album right in this day and age, Blue Songs is an example of how to do a dance album kind of mediocre-ly.