Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Random Record Review: Electronic--Electronic

      In my first review, I had initially promised to write about one random record review a week, but clearly I have not lived up to that expectation.  Although I'm still interested in following through on the project, my suspicion is that I'll probably produce one of these columns every month, rather than every week, so that I can focus on other political and cultural events.

     The random review for this posting is the debut, self-titled album by the duo, Electronic.  For lack of a better term, Electronic was a sort of super group, a collaboration between New Order vocalist, Bernard Sumner and Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr, and contained collaborations with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys.  The group was formed after the collapse of The Smiths, and during a brief hiatus of New Order.  The album's initial single, "Getting Away With It", featuring Tennant, was quite successful, and the album received a fair amount of both critical success and sales, although it's not a record that has survived in the memory of fans in the same way that the work of the constitutive parts of the band have survived.  Although I picked this record out randomly, it does seem like a decent time to reevaluate it, given the recent indifference.

     For folks who know me, it shouldn't surprise them that I had interest in the band, having been a fan of each of the groups that made up the project. If one compares Electronic to its constituent parts, the band certainly sounds nothing like The Smiths, and links more closely with the records made by New Order in the period.  However, it would be a mistake to think of the project as simply a continuation of the work that Sumner produced in New Order, Technique and Republic.  Rather than drawing primarily on that sound, the record shows a strong influence from the 'Baggy' scene that arose in Manchester in the late 1980's, work that actively tried to fuse popular forms of dance music with rock music.  While the vast majority of Marr's guitar work doesn't match his work in The Smiths, neither does it match the sounds produced by New Order, particularly the last two albums.  While it's difficult to deny that there is some interesting experimentation on the album, it certainly also dates the record badly in some ways, reflecting some of the cul de sac's of sound produced within the subgenre.

      To move into the songs of the album, the initial track provides a good reflection of many of the qualities already discussed above.  The song opens with a strong guitar riff, and engages with the "Baggy" tradition of mixing rock guitar riffs with dance rhythms and synthesizers.  It would be hard to deny that the song's positive qualities; it's pretty catching, and the oscillation between the rock oriented guitar riff and the more traditionally New Order sounding synth lines work pretty well.  The lyrics are fairly consistent with Sumner's work, and while not spectacular, do a pretty good job of building on the insulated and paranoid mood of the song.  However, the attempt and bringing a hip-hop influence on the vocals through the awkward and semi-rapped sections of the song, don't particularly work well, and badly date the song.  However, the positive aspects of the track outweigh its more problematic aspects of the song, marking it as an artifact of the era, but one worth looking back at.

     The next two tracks move away from the "Baggy" sound of the initial track, taking on a sound that links up with the classic sound of New Order, rather than sounding like the New Order of the late 1980's.  The first of the tracks, "Reality" is the weaker of the two tracks, sounding like a weaker track from Brotherhood or Low-Life.  "Tighten Up" shows even more fidelity to the New Order sound, sounding like the best work of the band.  Additionally, Marr's guitar work constitutes some of the stronger work on the novel.  It avoids the awkward rhythmic influence of the "Baggy" movement.  The fourth track of the album, "A Patience of a Saint", is one of two collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys and sounds a lot like a Pet Shop Boys song.  The hit single, "Getting away with it," uses the semi-spoken vocal approach found in the initial song with a greater degree of success, but these four songs gesture towards a significant issue with the album, which is its lack of cohesion.  There are moments that Electronic doesn't sound like a single band let alone a band producing a single album. 

      The second half of the album contains a greater degree of consistency than the first half of the album, with the notable exception of the instrumental, "Soviet" and the hip-hop oriented final track, "Feel Every Beat."  The dominant tracks on the album produce some of the most consistent moments on the album, although they don't show the consistency of the later albums.  The tracks avoid the awkward inconsistencies of the early tracks and gesture towards a band that isn't merely its constituent parts, although the New Order influence is still significant on them.  The two exceptional tracks constitute some of the weakest tracks on the album.  "Soviet" is a fairly innocuous ambient track.  It's not bad, but it's extraordinarily forgettable, while "Feel Every Beat" stands out as the worse track on the album, drawing on the more mechanical sound of hip-hop influenced, "Baggy" sound.  It's probably the most dated song on the track, and is pretty tedious, rhythmically and lyrically.  It's probably the only song on the album that would make the album better with its absence. 

     Despite the fact that later albums have a great deal more sonic consistency, this is still the Electronic album that I am most likely to listen to.  I don't know if it's because I heard it at a particular time in my life or that I kind of like the weird mix-tape quality it has.  Other than that, the album takes on the intense, paranoiac inferiority that is reflected in a lot of the work of New Order, but isn't quite the same.  It's a music that gestures towards the alienation and conflicts of the burgeoning neo-liberalism of the time period, but without ever expressing the political dimension of the crisis.  Although there's no particular reason for this album needs to be remembered as a lost classic, but it includes five or six really good songs, along with a few decent songs, and a couple real clunkers.  At very least, you can probably find it really cheap in some sort of used form.

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