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Milking the Hypnotic

[whitespace] Hooverphonic
Kris Dewitte

Liquid Dreams: Hooverphonic creates surreal sonic-scapes on its new album.

Belgium's Hooverphonic adds passion to electronica on 'Blue Wonder Power Milk'

By Gina Arnold

I OFTEN LIKE to review records in my car, which is how I became attracted to Hooverphonic's new album, Blue Wonder Power Milk (Epic). Had I heard the record in my home, I might have been misled by its subtlety. This type of music so often fades into the background when heard in one's living room, where there is always something better--not to mention noisier--to do than listen carefully to music (wash your hair, grind coffee beans, play with the dog).

Heard in the car, however, Blue Wonder Power Milk immediately proves itself to possess a wonderful quality. Indeed, it transformed a boring journey along Highway 101 into a secret spy trip into the heart of some fabulous European landscape, and it's hard to think of higher praise than that.

At first, while listening to this record, I merely felt like I was in a Lexus commercial, the kind in which a sleek dark car glides across some beautiful road. But that feeling in itself is a sort of musical miracle, given that I was driving a 10-year-old Tercel along a particularly trafficky stretch between the Lawrence Expressway and Oakland Road.

Very quickly, however, the record kicks into a film form. By the time one is half-way through the opening track, "Battersea"--a strange and evocative number about lost love on which singer Geike Arnaert wails, "It's over, I've got to forget"--one finds oneself mentally starring in some exotic foreign movie that has yet to be made.

Hooverphonic is a Belgian band that plays modified electronica. Although it relies heavily on samples, synths and "rhythm programming," it also writes song with vocals and lyrics. Stylistically, Hooverphonic blends the smooth montage sound of DJ Shadow with the bachelor-pad lounge aesthetic of Esquivel and Herb Alpert for a sound that's truly tres 1999. New singer Arnaert (who replaces Liesje Sadonius) has the kind of sexy, high, whispery voice that evokes '60s sex kitten Claudine Longet; she does, however, sing in English.

Blue Wonder Power Milk is the band's second U.S. release, and it is quite impressive: a hypnotic series of evocative songs featuring swelling orchestral strings merged seamlessly with programmed beats and the more old-fashioned tone values of guitar and vocals.

As on the band's first LP, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, Hooverphonic seems conceptually interested in the idea of merging various types of music, including soundtracks, advertising and pop-classical. To this mix of styles, the band adds beats to produce a type of pop that is quite persuasive (not to mention thoroughly modern, since nowadays, one can hardly tell an ad from a pop song anyway).

A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular was sort of about subverting the effect of advertising on the psyche, but Blue Wonder Power Milk is less explicit. Certain themes emerge here, one of which seems to be damage to the ecosystem. "Tuna" is definitely about environmental poisoning, so perhaps the criminal in this vague story is a corporate polluter.

Elsewhere things aren't as clear. "Eden" is a beautiful song about betrayal. "This Strange Effect" is another moody little keeper. Many songs have scary undercurrents of emotion, but occasionally Hooverphonic just writes a straight-ahead, old-fashioned, song. On "Magenta," for instance, Arnaert describes a sad Flemish day: "Longing for winter--longing for a cold bike ride through the snow. Summer flows to the cemetery slow ... pink versus black; black versus magenta--this picture of you just melts in my agenda."

MEANWHILE, THE SONGS sung by band leader, programmer and guitarist Alex Callier often descend into science fiction. (Not surprisingly, Callier is a refugee from film school in Antwerp, which is currently one of Europe's artsier cities.)

There is a strong air of surreality to many of these sonic-scapes, as the title cut indicates. Coincidentally, the title is quite similar to the title of Liz Phair's new record, Whitechocolatespaceegg. But Belgians can be forgiven for surreality more easily than Americans can, for two reasons.

For one thing, René Magritte--he of the clouds and floating bowlers--was a Belgian national, so such a gesture on Hooverphonic's part is less pretentious and more traditional. For another, there's a sort of heightened linguistic agility that sometimes occurs when people sing in a second language. Like the Belgian art-rock band Deus, Hooverphonic is clearly almost more adept at using English than native English speakers are. I particularly like Callier's plea to a lover: "Won't you be my dictionary? Won't you translate fun into something necessary?"

Although Hooverphonic's lyrics intrigue and amuse, the band's real strength is musical. The album really represents a triumph of programming expertise, showing as it does that electronica doesn't have to be cold and detached, impassive and alienating: it can be as passionate and inviting as every other type of music.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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