A modern take on disco music; an old-fashioned take on male wish fulfillment.
Escort is thoroughly devoted to disco. Its self-titled, self-released debut album (new to CD, but digitally released last November) struts through disco’s many subgenres and lifestyle accoutrements. You can have a ball just picking out the blatant influences: “Caméleon Chameleon” sounds uncannily like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, for instance, while “A Sailboat In the Moonlight” goes all Dr. Buzzard on a Guy Lombardo tune, with a little bit of the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” mashed in. When Escort does a song called “Cocaine Blues”, not only is it not a blues, it’s not really about cocaine. It’s about careening around the city, wired out of your mind, during a bygone era when cocaine was chic and abundant. Escort wouldn’t be caught dead doing meth -- that’d be like playing a banjo solo.
Though actually, you can sort of imagine Escort busting out a banjo solo. Just because they’re attentive to detail doesn’t mean they’re hamstrung by “authenticity” or “genre purity”, silly bugaboos in any genre but especially in disco. Disco has always been omnivorous, swallowing up whatever sounds and styles will fit into its grooves, so a disco-revival band has a long list of musical ingredients at its disposal. In the two-chord funk of “Cocaine Blues”, synth squiggles and falsetto Stones-y “doo doo doo”s glisten like pinpoints, poking holes in a warm blanket of blaxploitation strings, while singer Joy Dragland lands perfect lines: “A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork / That’s the way we spell New York.” (She also spells Chicago with an entirely unfair dis: “Chick in the car and the car won’t go.” Our cars can move six months out of the year, thank you very much!) “Makeover” resembles Kylie Minogue engaged in a funky hand jive battle with that sinister steampipe noise from Genesis’s “Tonight Tonight Tonight”.
Brooklyn DJs Dan Balis and Eugene Cho released the first Escort single, a smooth funk workout called “Starlight”, back in 2006, and since then they’ve grown to a live band sometimes 17 members strong. With singer (and album cover-girl) Adeline Michèle, they’ve re-recorded a number of their early singles for Escort, and they’ve somehow convinced her to sing lines like “Tie me up and hold me down” (“Starlight”) and “Make me up and make me over / Make me high and make me sober / Tell me tell me tell me what to do” (“Makeover”).
As with the cocaine, these lyrics aren’t so much about submission as they’re about submission-chic. Balis and Cho have imagined a disco fantasyland, a mash-up of different styles and touchpoints, and to top it off they need an ideal disco diva -- hypersexual, hyperclassy, and submissive to men. Granted, the men putting words into Michèle’s mouth probably imagine they’re flattering her; as a strong, hot woman she can afford to flirt like she’s playing the lead in Vertigo, or something. Unfortunately, Escort’s male fantasies masquerading as female fantasies fall flat aesthetically. Comparing these lyrics to Donna Summer’s vibrant and human persona, particularly on Bad Girls, is like reading a Harlequin romance after Anna Karenina.
Escort’s lyrics, one-dimensional caricatures of the disco life, are especially disappointing when compared to their music, which for all its references, sounds layered, assured, modern, and unconstrained by history. Take what’s maybe their best-known song, “All Through the Night”, a.k.a. “that YouTube video where the Muppets sing about freaking.” Lyrically, it’s standard do-it-all-night wish fulfillment, and apparently Balis and Cho haven’t read William Saffire’s open letter to R&B singers, “Sex Is Not a Verb”. But the song’s musical blend of Casio blips, Rick James synth shrieks, flute fills, and rapid-fire funk vocals sounds great. The instruments and voices weave contrapuntal polyrhythms that ebb and flow, creating unique musical structures. And the song does improve immensely, if you imagine Muppets singing it.
Fortunately, this is pop music, where listening to the words is optional. Escort’s music delivers enough rewards to make me hope they continue at it for a while. Maybe next album Adeline Michèle can write some lyrics.