Inspired by '70s dance culture and '60s standup comedy, Kurt Wagner and some Lambchop cohorts come up with an eclectic electronic collection.
Using modern technology to make music that decries the effects of modern technology is a tried and true pop music irony. But such a familiar approach doesn't make HeCTA's "Sympathy for the Auto Industry" any less effective, or affecting. As moody, minor-key synthesizers cascade over a pulsating electro-rhythm that falls somewhere between Georgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, Kurt Wagner waxes ambivalent about our hyper-accelerated culture. "Just give me a car I can understand", he pleads, neatly summing up the paradox of technological innovation. Later, when he repeats "You shouldn't have to change a thing except your mind", the sentiment sounds like a mantra for a simpler, saner world.
"Sympathy for the Auto Industry" is quite an accomplishment, music and message working together to product a song that is still catchy enough to demand repeat playings on the car stereo. That it comes from men who are best known for alt-country and lilting indie rock is even more impressive and unexpected. Yet here is Wagner, two decades and change into a career as frontman and lynchpin of Lambchop, having a go at electronic music. And, along with fellow Lambchop contributors Ryan Norris and Scott Martin, he succeeds more often than not.
Wagner has explained how the impetus for HeCTA came from both a recording of 1960s-vintage comedian Buddy Hackett and a book about 1970s American dance culture. And, strange as the notion may seem, debut album The Diet sounds like something that sprang from such disparate, esoteric sources. Its charm is in how it's alternately whimsical and serious, and sometimes both at the same time.
To help us make sense of it all, HeCTA have even included a track called "The Concept". The song features said Hackett samples, in which he talks incredulously about taking various pills, backed by a busy, '90s-souding breakbeat. It's sort of an updated, alternate-universe version of New Order's "Fine Time". It really doesn't offer much of a window on the rest of The Diet, though, as each track essentially acts as a unique, stand-alone experiment.
There's quite a breadth of sounds and textures at work. "Til Someone Gets Hurt" is staccato techno with popping drums and plenty of blurbs and bleeps. "Prettyghetto" invokes another New Order reference. With its probing bass and descending instrumental refrain, it's like a more discofied version of "Senses" from the electronic pioneers' 1981 debut Movement. But The Diet is far from a New Order tribute, or a tribute to anyone else in particular. "Change is in Our Pocket" takes a cerebral, post-rock approach, an airtight shuffle rhythm underpinning some noodly guitar and nondescript chanting from Wagner.
Aside from Wagner's familiar voice, there are few hints that look back toward HeCTA's Lambchop connections. The most obvious one is "We Are Glistening", a pretty straightforward after-hours ballad that works in piano and warm horns. In fact, the mechanized clicks seem superfluous here. Probably for the only time on the album, they feel as if they were added just to make the song fit the concept. Elsewhere, "Til Someone Gets Hurt" and the bright, wistful "We Bitched We Bovvered and We Buildered" feature some nice harmonies, synthetically produced or not.
"Suck it up, hippies", Wagner directs in HeCTA's press release. He makes a good point. Unlike a lot of solo and side projects, HeCTA really does function as its own entity, and shouldn't be tied down by perceived relationships to its members' other, better-known endeavors. If it doesn't quite hang together as a complete album, The Diet demonstrates that , as ambivalent as they are about the modern world, Wagner and company are comfortable and more than competent at operating within it.