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Another Breakfast With Them: Gorgeous and affectless, the members of Ladytron are poised to become the stars of the New New Wave.

Another New Wave

Ladytron is reinventing synth pop and electronica to express sentiments alien to the dance floor

By Michelle Goldberg

EVER SINCE Stanley Kubrick infused the date with futuristic transcendence, 2001 was supposed to be the dawn of a new kind of world. Yet only weeks into this symbolically significant year, an acrid déjà vu hangs in the air.

Despite his promises of a new, more palatable strain of conservatism, George W. Bush has assembled a cabinet ready to wage holy war on all the constituencies that felt relatively secure in the Clinton years, especially poor and lower-middle-class blacks, gays and women who aspire to be more than hausfraus. The economy is lurching toward recession, and the new media jobs that placated a generation of liberal-arts graduates are vanishing quicker than Bush's compassionate facade.

In other words, instead of a new era, we're facing 1991 all over again. That's hideous news in just about every way but one. As our society gets worse, our culture will almost surely get better. After all, a smug acceptance of the status quo rarely breeds good art, and mainstream music of late has been curdled and lobotomized.

At the end of the 1980s, we were plagued by teenyboppers like Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block, as well as self-consciously shocking rap acts like 2 Live Crew. Now we've got their analogues in Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Backstreet Boys and Eminem.

Electronic dance music, once so exuberant and vital, has grown hopelessly derivative and repetitious, dominated both by mindless exhortations to party on and chilly, soulless hipster wallpaper. Whereas once it commented on an increasingly mechanized culture, it's now been fully appropriated to celebrate it--witness the classic Juan Atkins track "No UFOs" pulsing through the new Ford Focus commercial, which ends with the words "Detroit Techno" emblazoned on the screen.

Yet beneath the banality, something exciting is coalescing and gathering force. As befits this early-'90s redux, it's not quite new, but it feels fresh and alive. Like electronic dance music, it's infatuated with technology but far more skeptical of it. Unlike almost everything else on the scene today, this force is self-consciously brainy, a bit despairing and removed, perfect for a time of disillusionment, paranoia and retrenchment. It's the New New Wave.

Bands like the Future Bible Heroes, Baxendale, Le Tigre, Looper, Stars and Ladytron are reinventing synth pop and electronica to express sentiments alien to the dance floor--things like loneliness, anxiety and cynicism. That might sound depressing, but it's actually quite comforting, especially if the ecstatic incantations of house tracks leave you wondering why everyone else is having so much fun while you're feeling awkward and bored and isolated.

Songs like Baxendale's acerbic "Summer of Hate" supply music for misanthropes, antidotes to all the sunshiny club anthems that make one feel guilty for being insufficiently uninhibited (especially satisfying is the "F**k Ibiza, you're better off at home" mix). Over a gurgling, soaring synth melody, lead singer Tim Benton spits the lines "People in the streets just hanging around/playing Bob Marley far too loud."

EVERY NEW SCENE needs to rip down the pieties of the one that came before it, and New New Wave often seems to aim right at electronic dance music's promise of blissful nightclub communion. For example, "Playgirl," the first single off Ladytron's fabulous new album, 604 (Emperor Norton), is an addictively catchy, icily propulsive song about the hollowness of endless hedonism.

Knob tweakers Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu create torrents of melodious machine noise and tinny percussion while Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo sing about a lost party girl with an elegant detachment that recalls Nico. Marnie croons, "Playgirl, why are you dancing when you could be alone?"; behind her, Aroyo delivers robotic spoken-word lines about choking on cigarettes.

Ladytron is poised to become the star band of its nascent scene. The members certainly look the part: gorgeous, black-clad and affectless (one of the singers is a former runway model). But it's the band's sound that's stunning--wry, sophisticated crystalline electro-pop that's both retro and futuristic, full of old-fashioned synthesizers and existential Eurotrash glamour as well as ultramodern rhythms.

Even their album's name recalls a vision of the future that was current a decade ago and suddenly seems exactly right all over again. The cold number 604 suggests anonymity and alienation instead of the glorious self-actualization promised by technology in the late '90s.

Ladytron appeared with Baxendale and the Future Bible Heroes on March Records' recent Human League tribute album, and the influence of that band is clear on 604, along with artists like Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. Like the Human League, Ladytron specializes in coolly observed tales of social manipulation. On "Discotrax," Marnie sings, "I know her/Used to follow everywhere we'd go/And it's so sweet/Now she's sleeping with a boy I know/The boy I know/ Knows a pretty girl in every town/And the way they look/They were made to let each other down."

More personal but equally disenchanted is "Another Breakfast With You," about a battle of indifference between two lovers. "I didn't feel a thing/ When you told me that you didn't feel a thing/When I told you that I didn't feel a thing," Marnie sings over a turgid beat, ominous synths that seem like a warped movie-house organs and a swirl of discordant sound effects.

As wintry and bleak as 604 is, the album crackles with passion and innovation and moments of intense, pristine beauty. Songs like "Ladybird" possess sublime hooks, incandescent synths and vocal curls that will send shivers down your spine. There's plenty of sweetness to balance what's bitter. Still, Ladytron's vision is a shadowy one--perfect for the dark days ahead.

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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