Have you ever been handed a mix CD (or mix tape) by a friend, who happens to be a major music geek? You politely promise to give it a listen, but for some reason (laziness being the primary one) you don't, and as weeks go by, it just sits buried in your own pile of CDs, and every time you come across it, you see its empty, generic label, its "Maxell" or "Memorex" emblazoned across, with some kind of pretentious title scribbled with a Sharpie, looking nowhere near as enticing as the cover of the new Darkness album. Then, the next time you see your friend, he or she asks what you thought of it, eyes ablaze in anticipation, in hope that, after hours and hours of track selection, sequencing for maximum fluidity and effect, and trying to work with a finicky CD burner, finally, after one listen, you will admit to having seen the light, thank him or her profusely, begging to hear more, how nothing could have prepared you for that 80 minute musical epiphany; but instead, all you can do is meekly fib, "Uh, yeah, it's pretty good."
You've got to admit, it's fun making mix CDs, and no music fan can resist doing it, but they're often just an exercise in self-indulgence, something more fun for you to make than to have to listen to someone else's. Following the success of their second album, Light and Magic, Liverpool's Ladytron have thought it would be a good idea to make a mix of their own for their fans, and also take the opportunity to showcase some of their favorite songs that they like to play on their DJing stints. That's a decent idea, but to do so and expect people to pay full price for it, well, it'd have to be one hell of a CD. Well, you know what? It is a good CD. A very good CD. Not only that, but its eye-catching, nocturnal cover photo is considerably better than a blank index card.
The song selections on Softcore Jukebox are eclectic, ranging from Sixties psychedelic kitsch, to late '70s post punk, to new wave, to early '90s Britrock, to contemporary techno, electro, and dance. It's a wide palate of styles, as obscure tracks mix with some classic cuts, as well as a few tracks by new artists thrown in, but the songs mesh very well (wisely, the album is not a continuous mix, with no crossfading), and when it really hits its stride midway through, you're struck by the fact that, despite the musical diversity, this is one incredibly danceable album.
The unmistakable theme of the first third of Softcore Jukebox is post punk. My Bloody Valentine's "Soon", from the immortal 1991 Loveless album, opens the CD, with its hypnotic combination of layered, roaring guitars, a loping dance beat, and Kevin Shields's vocals, buried deep in the mix. The Fall's incredibly catchy "Hit the North", the band's most commercial-sounding moment, and Wire's ethereal "The 15th" appear, the latter selection hinting at the fact that perhaps Ladytron wasn't all too thrilled with Fischerspooner's recent electropop cover version (says Daniel Hunt, "It's a very special song in its original incarnation and surprisingly few people we met had heard it"). Ladytron pops in with a remixed version of their single "Blue Jeans", this time with more of a drums and guitar feel (a little bit reminiscent of Wire), but the real revelation is "What's a Girl to Do", by Eighties new wave diva Cristina. The 1984 song, co-written and produced by Don Was, of all people, is an irresistible shot of pure synth pop, as Cristina dryly sings about having no direction in life ("I say my three Hail Marys / I daily paint my face / My friends decay around me / And I view them with distaste").
From then on, for the next 45 minutes or so, it's all about music that can make you move. Snap Ant gets things going with its mellow blend of acoustic guitar and synth pop on "Saviour Piece", while forgotten Madchester band New Fast Automatic Daffodils follow with their funky, Happy Mondays-like single "Big". Sacramento, California's great !!! provides a potent dose of dancepunk on "Feel Good Hit of the Fall", Fat Truckers' "Teenage Daughter" is an uproarious, minimalist electro tune, and Fannypack's "Hey Mami" is a wickedly catchy blast of Latin hip-hop. The music just doesn't let up. "Manila", by Swiss drum and bass whiz Seelenluft, featuring 12-year-old Compton native Michael Smith on vocals, is infectious, with its disco-fused beat, simple bass line, and Smith's lackadaisical, prepubescent delivery. The Source's early '90s techno interpretation of Candi Staton's "You Got the Love" is sublime, Codec and Flexor's "Crazy Girls" pummels you with its persistent beat, and Ladytron appear one more time, with their raucous, garage rock interpretation of Tweet's "Oops Oh My".
Closing out with the ferocious late '60s rock of Shocking Blue's "Send Me a Postcard" and the always creepy "Some Velvet Morning", by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Softcore Jukebox is not only a great little mix album, but also a good indicator of nearly all the influences Ladytron draw their sound from (the only thing missing being perhaps a small sampling of Krautrock). As proven on 604 and Light and Magic, Ladytron continue to inch closer to putting out a truly great album, and although Softcore Jukebox isn't an official follow-up, and only has two actual Ladytron songs, it hints at all the different directions the band can take their music in, and only makes you crave their next album even more. In the meantime, you can't go wrong with this one.