US release date: 1 February 2001
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About a decade ago, around the time when the charts were dominated by grunge and gangsta rap, there was a vicious backlash against all things '80s. At the time, the then-fledgling FX cable network had a late night CD review show called "Sound FX", and said show was basically no more than three 20-somethings (one of them future 7up salesman Orlando Jones) sitting around in a New York apartment talking about music. One of the three, whose name I forgot long ago, had a particularly virulent anti-'80s streak, running screaming from the room when one of his cohorts put on a Blondie CD.
Today it seems hard to believe that anyone was ever willing to write off the 1980s so fully. While the '80s may have been the decade that produced Menudo and Debbie Gibson, it also brought us Nintendo, the Talking Heads, the Go-Betweens, and the Smiths. There was always some great college rock and indie rock, even when mainstream music seemed to be at its worst. The bad was always tempered by the good. And now we have all-'80s format radio, '80s dance nights (or entire '80s clubs), and we even have a TV show in That '80s Show.
And the children of the '80s, who were raised in a culture deep fat-fried, served in three minutes, and ordered off a laminated menu in a mall, couldn't escape what has become known as '80s culture, yet they were told it was bad, bad, bad. And now that the babies of the late '70s and early '80s -- in essence the "children of the '80s" -- have grown up and are calling their own shots, they've miraculously brought back and put on life support bits and pieces of the strip mall pop culture that supposedly made the '80s so bad, but are in fact what made the period so distinctive.
So it's in this environment that a band like Freezepop is thriving. Each member of the Boston threesome is in their early 20s, meaning they were all children in the '80s. And their love of synthesizers and dance pop, modernized through dance-floor techno and quirky bubblegum pop, is garnering a remarkable attention in the college-student heavy city of Boston. It seems the kids can't get enough of a band that's nearly guitarless, a band that sounds like vintage Soft Cell or Fixx filtered through more modern acts like Bis.
That Bis comparison is important, actually, because Freezepop's detractors may say that they're a little too similar to that Scottish act. Both have two boys and one girl who adopt goofy monikers, both have a vaguely Japanese aesthetic, and both make bouncy, New Wave-influenced electro-pop. The biggest difference is that one half of Bis' influence lies in old school punk, while Freezepop's love of the keyboard is focused squarely on the '80s, long after punk's demise. In the Freezepop universe, it's as if bands like New Order didn't have their roots in the British punk scene, heck, it's as if punk never happened at all. "Get Ready 2 Rokk", the one song on either their debut outing Freezepop Forever or their follow-up EP Fashion Impression Function to contain a guitar, contains a Black Sabbath rip off. That might've been just a bit unorthodox in 1982, but feels just right in 2002.
And while that may all sound like a bad thing, especially since Bis are a pretty good band doing a very similar thing, Liz Enthusiasm, the Duke of Candied Apples, and The Other Sean T. Drinkwater of Freezepop are doing a damn good job of resurrecting synth-pop.
The band's debut, 2001's Freezepop Forever, is 12 tracks packed with '80s nostalgia and pop hooks. The title track, which serves as the band's quasi-mission statement (much like Bis' "Tell It to the Kids"), allows each of the three band members to step out for their own autobiographical verse, and the lyrics are the kind of goofy fun that one might expect. For example, Freezepop front woman Liz Enthusiasm sings "Liz Enthusiasm is my name / Wearing funky clothing that will put yours to shame / Shopping about 18 hours a day / You'll find me in thrift shops or on ebay". It's this kind of junk-pop culture fascination that's all over the disc, from references to Boston's public transit system, gay pride buttons, and e-mail spam to an entire song written about former Growing Pains star Tracey Gold.
But while Liz Enthusiasm's vocals are anything but enthusiastic -- her cadence makes her sound like a bored Marc Almond, probably intentionally so -- the music provided by the boys is never boring. Sure, it's all synthesizers, and that can occasionally make Freezepop Forever a bit much to take in on a single listen for most, but the beats, grooves, and atmospheres are invigorating. For every straight-ahead (is there such a thing?) synth-pop number, there's another that goes someplace adventurous, such as the rock tribute in "Get Ready 2 Rokk", the emotional soundscape of the single "Tender Lies", and the mini-pop opera of the Japanese language-titled fifth track (the name of which I can't decode because it's written in Japanese characters).
On Fashion Impression Function the 2002 follow-up EP to the debut, the band cram four new songs, five remixes, a hidden track, and two bonus videos (for "Tender Lies" and "Freezepop Forever") onto a disc. Of the new material, the opener "Manipulate" is easily one of the band's strongest, catchiest tunes with a keyboard line straight out of 1985. The remixes vary in quality-some choose to merely reinterpret the songs, while others push them closer to their boundaries. That makes for more unwieldy (and slightly harder hitting, though less focused) versions of "Manipulate" (here in its "Machinate Mix") and "Plastic Stars" ("Commodore Vic's Sleeping Dog's Mix"). There are also two excellently gimmicky remixes: "Robotron 2020" appears in an "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" mix, lifting music and words from the cult classic Zero Wing video game. The poorly translated, nonsensical "All your base are belong to us" phrase and the jerky, mechanical voice that spoke it in the game are both laid over a mix of "Robotron 2020" that sounds like its from the soundtrack to an 8-bit video game. Yet another remix, Robotkid's Lameboy Mix of "Science Genius Girl", embodies the same sonic similarity to classic 1980s home video games. It's enough to make you want to unwrap your plastic controllers, slump in a video chair, and play a game of Contra.
The music that Freezepop is making is so uncool, so out-of-vogue, so far from the current alternative rock landscape of Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks that many of today's college students -- kids old enough to remember the early days of MTV but too old to bother watching it now -- are rediscovering the better half of the '80s. And judging by college radio support for Freezepop in their Boston home and the band's nomination as best US band in the 2002 American Synthpop Awards, the kids nostalgic for the days when New Wave ruled the airwaves are paying attention.