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Man Against Machine

A New '80s Redux for 2002

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THE LIARS Bolting ahead.
If ordinary citizens recycled paper, plastic, and glass as conscientiously as musicians do styles, we wouldn't be in the environmental mess we're in today. Of course, musicians have been biting moves from their forebears for millennia; now, though, the time span between genre revivals has shrunk to an absurd degree. Those who say there's nothing new to be done musically except mix and match old styles can look back at 2002 with smugness.

This year, the international scene was lousy with bands recycling '80s music. Eighties nostalgia's been booming since the mid '90s, when nearly every North American club under the moon dedicated nights to celebrating Reagan-era hits. (Rhino's recently issued seven-disc monstrosity Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box [Totally] reminds us how damned disposable most of that decade's chart fodder was/is.) But Reagan-era fetishry came to an asymmetrically coiffed head this year. Indie bands discovered Gang of Four, the Contortions, ESG, Liquid Liquid, PiL, the Slits, et al., and tried to emulate their edgy funk rock and freaky dub. In this vital vein, Liars, Cripples, and Out Hud bolted ahead of the pack with their debut albums. On their bow, much-hyped New Yorkers Interpol offered scarily accurate facsimiles of Joy Division's dour grandeur and Josef K's angular angst. Radio 4 (more freakin' New Yorkers) merged Gang of Four's anthemic punch with the B-52's buoyant pop smarts on Gotham. And bands like Numbers, Erase Errata, and the Faint owed debts to spastic retro-futurists Devo and jazz-funk punks the Contortions.

In electronic music, electro made its umpteenth comeback with electroclash. (Electro's actually never gone away; it's just bubbled underground for most of its lifespan.) A brilliant concept hatched by Berliniamsburg club promoter and Mogul Electro label boss Larry Tee, electroclash seduced music editors into devoting gallons of ink to the phenomenon. Electroclash shifted the spotlight back onto vocalists (usually sex-obsessed females), spectacular performance, and actual songs instead of electronica's usual conveyor belt of faceless producers and functional tracks. Tee and his protégés wanted to inject flamboyant personality into electronica's "it's all about the music, man" mindset. Hyperbolic characters such as Peaches, W.I.T., Miss Kittin, and Chicks on Speed cared nothing for "authenticity" and instrumental prowess. They'd rather stick middle fingers up the tight asses of the technocrats through their over-the-top sexuality and Euro-trashy decadence.

In theory, electroclash sounded great. On record and in live performance, the music left much to be desired (desire being too human a trait for these wannabe androids and Liquid Sky extras). After a while, electroclash's relentless campiness, pretentiously detached vocals, and tinny been-there-done-that beats just grated. On the other glittery-gloved hand, New York duo Metro Area captured electro and house's initial freshness with much more skill and less cheese than the electro- clashers did. To the north, Toronto producer Lowfish took us back to the dreamy synth pop of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and New Order. Across the Atlantic, English ensemble Playgroup showed you how to party as if Maggie Thatcher were still in power with some musicians who once toiled under her stiletto heel.

Despite all this '80s revisionism--much of which is worthwhile--you're actually better off exploring the bonanza of reissues by the original '80s artists. I direct you to the seminal works of 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio, ESG, Cabaret Voltaire, James Chance (Tiger Style plans to issue a boxed set in March 2003), and excellent comps like Disco Not Disco, Anti NY, and In the Beginning There Was Rhythm. Most of these innovators' best material was lovingly excavated and pressed onto CD and vinyl (for you purists) in the last year or two, so why not go to the source and try to understand this unique music from the ground up? If you're going to be nostalgic, you should at least try to be original about it.

Top 10 '80s-Influenced Albums of 2002: 1. Liars--They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Mute)

2. Cripples--Dirty Head (Dirtnap)

3. Out Hud--S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. (Kranky)

4. Metro Area--Metro Area (Environ)

5. Playgroup--Playgroup (Astralwerks)

6. Numbers--Numbers Life (Tigerbeat6)

7. Ladytron--Light & Magic (Emperor Norton)

8. Interpol--Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)

9. Lowfish--Eliminator (Suction)

10. Various Artists--Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau (Ghostly International)

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