With teen pop, then soul crooners, and finally garage rock making comebacks, it was probably inevitable that a resurgence of synth pop was on the way. Although everyone from Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers has proven that electronic music can be thoughtful and complex, in the early 1980s groups like Human League and Depeche Mode proved it could be just as insipid and fun as any other form of pop music. The spawn of those groups has finally come of age, resulting in something like a “new new wave”. Judging from groups like Ladytron, Crème Blush, Epoxies, and the Capricorns, the synth sound is back in a big way.
A female duo from Grayslake, Illinois, the Capricorns make ’80s-style sounds with nothing more than their voices, a couple of Casio keyboards, and a tambourine. They have two years and two albums under their belts, and the latest, released on the D.C.-based Paroxysm label, was recorded in Athens, Georgia with Elephant Six’s Chris Bishop. Like the best of their predecessors, Kirsten and Heather Lynn know how to milk sweeping, dramatic sounds from their keyboards, and marry them with enough hooks and passionate vocals to make their songs sound grandiose instead of sounding like Ross from “Friends” creating his laughable “Ross music”.
The songs on In the Zone fall roughly into three categories: hyper-speed synth workouts (“The New Sound”, “In the Zone”), moody, mid-tempo numbers (“Geeky Pop Song”, “Pretty Girls”), and a few dramatic ballads (“The Back Room”, “Stay Awake”). Because they rely solely on keyboards, the slower songs sometimes tend to blend together, but the Capricorns manage to get some impressive sounds from their instruments on the elegant baroque ballad “Stay Awake”. Otherwise, it’s the faster songs that are the most enjoyable.
“Nintendo Song” is the best proof that the Capricorns know exactly how to play the synth pop game: by being deadly serious about banal things. The frenzied keyboard line guiding the song gives it a paranoid feel and the lyrics are ominous and reflective: “Show me good / Show me evil / Tell me what to believe”; “I’ll be invincible / Walk on air . . . I know I’m not supposed to die at the end”. Without the title, you might not suspect that they are singing about a video game.
“The Longest Drive” is the album’s highlight and exploits the best elements of ’80s synth pop — plenty of hooks, a big pop sound, and heartbroken lyrics. “There were things I never told / And I guess now I’ll never have the chance,” Heather Lynn sings about a deceased friend with a lovely, simple sense of regret, “And I’ll always miss the way that you dance”. The Capricorns also infuse the song with a sense of self-aware realism: “Since April I’ve been writing all my songs for you / But one million songs will not win you back”. Besides the sweet melancholy of the lyrics, the song has a driving, whirling bridge that is nothing less than beautiful.
The sentimentality of “The Longest Drive” is nicely balanced by a couple of not so romantic breakup songs. “Nathan II” is the best, peppered with vindictive threats (“I’m gonna spike your lemonade”), handclaps, and Valley Girl-style vocal replies (“You’re gonna wish you never met me, boy / I am gonna make you pay — OK!”). “Song for 18” wins points, though, for veering from the bold melodrama of the line “You suck my life / You bleed me dry” to the more mundane and practical complaint “You’re tired, you’re busy / You’re never in” — such is the illogic of love. “Teenage Boyfriend” tries to replicate this brash humor, but comes off as a lame one-note joke. Besides, after hearing what these women are capable of, it’s hard to believe them when they say that “No one understands me like my teenage boyfriend” — they are way beyond lame high-school boys.
That’s not to say the Capricorns don’t have their negative points. The dramatic nature of their songs makes them somewhat taxing to listen to over the course of an album, and the duo’s rudimentary keyboard sound limits what they can do musically. Even though there are some great individual songs on In the Zone, they tend to be overshadowed by the sonic sameness of the other tracks. Still, the Capricorns have managed to turn out a piece of retro pop that is just as convincing and enjoyable as the efforts of the bands that inspired them, and that’s a feat most artists aspire to achieve.