Ladytron's third album is not only their most adventurous to date, it's also their best.
Ladytron have always excelled at juxtaposing contrasting styles in both their music and their image, be it synthetic versus organic, or warm versus frigid. They have stylish haircuts, but dress in rather utilitarian-looking clothes onstage. Their recorded music is heavily dominated by synthesizers, but their live show has included real drums and guitar. Helen Marnie sings in a disarmingly soft voice, while Mira Aroyo spits her vocals in a cold, Eastern European monotone. Audiences don't know whether to dance or stand looking like bored indie rock fans; even the band's song "Playgirl" asks, "Why are you dancing when you could be alone?"
After the charming mishmash of electro, post punk, and pop rock on their lauded 2000 debut 604, Ladytron, fronted by the vocal yin-yang of Marnie and Aroyo, with Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu quietly doing their thing in the background, decided to add considerable polish to their sound on 2002's uber-hip Light and Magic. Buoyed by the single "Seventeen", the album helped bring the electroclash craze above ground, alongside the likes of Adult. and Fischerspooner, but to their credit, Ladytron refused to allow themselves to be lumped in with the rest of the synth pop fad, and over the past three years, they've continued to evolve musically. With the addition of a full band behind the synth quartet, their live sound began taking on more of a krautrock style, as rigid Kraftwerk elements meshed with a more progressive, Can-style element. The 2003 mix CD Softcore Jukebox offered hints of Ladytron's continued growth, from the cover photo of Marnie and Aroyo, an homage to Roxy Music (whose song is the band's namesake), to the reworked version of "Blue Jeans", to the raucous, punk-fueled cover of Tweet's "Oops, Oh My". Listening to the eclectic tracks on Softcore Jukebox, from My Bloody Valentine, to The Fall, to Cristina, to Lee Hazlewood, the prospect of what Ladytron's third full-length would sound like was encouraging, and after the long wait, their much-anticipated follow-up delivers on the promise.
While both 604 and Light and Magic toyed with the idea of pop music, tentatively dipping into catchy melodies and arrangements, the hip posturing making the music sound more chilly than engaging, Witching Hour, on the other hand, is surprisngly accessible. Any thought of Ladytron being nothing more than poster children for a musical trend that has since faded away has been tossed out the window. Produced by Jim Abbiss, who has worked with Placebo and Kasabian in the past, the sound is much more dense than the stripped-down Light and Magic, and although the new songs combine dark themes with the band's familiar glacial feel, you begin to sense a heart beating underneath all the layers of ice.
The key track on the album is its first single, "Sugar". Fans are already familiar with the song, as it was featured prominently on the excellent, sadly overlooked soundtrack to the documentary film Thinking XXX from a year ago, and it's presented in cleaner, beefed-up form on Witching Hour. The most outwardly rock-oriented song the band has ever done, "Sugar" mines both '60s garage rock and early '90s shoegazer, the insistent drums and tambourine beat underscored by waves of feedback and drones, as Marnie's teasing, layered lead vocals draw strongly from the great 90s dreampoppers Lush. Coy, menacing, and carnal at the same time, it oozes personality, a huge departure from the band's previous, rather staid singles.
Much of the credit of the album's success goes to Marnie, who puts in a very strong lead vocal performance on ten of the 13 tracks, sounding more confident and emotional than ever before. The upcoming second single, "Destroy Everything You Touch", is just as notable a departure as "Sugar", but it heads in a different direction, driven by strong, house-style beats and accented by grandiose, cascading synths, Marnie cooing lyrics that sound as much a political commentary as a song about a jilted lover. Marnie's sweet vocal melodies on "International Dateline" mask feelings of impending doom ("Woke up in the evening/ To the sound of the screaming/ Through the walls that were bleeding/ All over me"), while the dreamy "All the Way" closes the album on a lovely, plaintive note. The tender "Beauty #2" smacks of Depeche Mode, it's sparse arrangement adding weight to Marnie's emotional vocal delivery, before shifting into a gorgeous, dance-fueled breakdown midway through.
While Witching Hour has the band sounding more adventurous, there's a consistency to the tracks that holds it all together. "High Rise" is an even more direct nod to My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain than "Sugar", "White Light Generator" is simple, lush (by name and by nature) dreampop, and "Weekend" boasts a terrific, motorik style rhythm, another example of the band's Krautrock fascination. Aroyo does sing on two songs, her usually harsh voice toned down a touch on "amTV" (arguably the album's weakest track) and on the disc's harshest track, "Fighting in Built Up Areas", but in all honesty, it's Marnie's album, and her much more engaging vocal style is what makes this a potentially mainstream-friendly piece of work. The artful blend of darkness and warmth ultimately proves to be the record's best asset; it's a delicate balance, but Ladytron gets it just right.