Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Julee Cruise

julee cruise
I realize this is a bit of a late post for a "brunch" this week, but I'll make up for my tardiness with a full plate of dreamy goodness.

Having spent the early part of his career as a musician on the Catskills resort circuit (as well as a songwriter/arranger for artists such as Shirley Bassey and country singer Mel Tillis), film composer Angelo Badalamenti first met director David Lynch when he agreed to score Lynch's 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. The two have been an inseparable creative team ever since this first collaboration, though Badalamenti has kept himself very busy between Lynch projects scoring films in nearly every conceivable genre, from Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors and City Of Lost Children to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Beach, and A Very Long Engagment.

It was during the process of scoring Blue Velvet, however, that Badalamenti stumbled across the voice that would provide him with his best-known musical achievements. While searching for a voice to sing "Mysteries Of Love" (the film's central "love theme") with the kind of naked, angelic innocence Lynch was after, Badalamenti eventually realized that the ideal choice was none other than his talent scout, Julee Cruise.
Floating Into The Night
The results of Cruise's whispery, delicate voice singing Lynch's intentionally naïve lyrics set to Badalamenti's gorgeous bed of synths were so striking that a full-length collaboration between the three was inevitable. Finally released in the summer of 1989, Cruise's Floating Into The Night was an almost ambient work of weightless sonics and heartsick paeans to love and loneliness, much in the same style as "Mysteries Of Love," though the occasional dramatic flourish injected a rather menacing undertone to the album at unexpected times. Unsurprisingly, Warner Bros. had no idea what to do with the record, initially marketing it to accounts in rather shallow fashion as a new spin on The Cowboy Junkies album The Trinity Sessions. While both records did share a soft, shuffling swoon to them, any comparison bewteen the two ended at that point: Badalamenti's rich repertoire of influences made Floating Into The Night sound like an almost indescribable mix of modern synthwave, late-1950's romantica, and classic torch song laments. There was also a weird, alien feel to the record that (at the time of its release) had no stylistic label, but what would eventually be known a few years later as trip-hop.

The next collaboration between the three was a bizarre, surreal performance piece staged at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in November of 1989. Titled Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream Of The Broken Hearted, this piece was constructed of a couple of new compositions and several selections from Floating Into The Night. Staged on what looked like a burned-out, half-completed Broadway stage, the symphony was prefaced (at least on it's video release) with a dramatic prologue acted out by a Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern (stars of Lynch's 1990 cinematic release Wild At Heart). The rest of the "symphony" was about as strange as anything Warner Bros. ever released in the 1990s (with the possible exception of the Mr. Bungle catalog): as the "voice of heartbreak," Cruise appeared nearly throughout the performance, singing songs while suspended thirty feet in the air or while being filmed trapped in the trunk of a car parked on stage. Even better, at some point what looked like a bipedal skinned deer staggered about the stage, and there were lots of midgets running around with work lights ... well, I guess you'll just have to see it.

While it was almost completely ignored upon release, Floating Into The Night, became a hot property in the late spring of 1990 thanks to the wild popularity of Lynch's dramatic television series Twin Peaks. Not only did the T.V. show feature an instrumental version of "Falling" as it's theme song, but Cruise appeared in the show singing songs from her album as well. Since no soundtrack album for the show was available at the time Twin Peaks-mania hit, Floating Into The Night had to suffice, and Cruise suddenly found herself floating just under the A-list radar as "Falling" took off at Modern Rock, and exposure from the TV series propelled Floating Into The Night as high as Number 74 on the Billboard Top 200. The phenomenon even made it overseas: while Cruise's album never managed to crack the U.K. list, two singles managed to make the lists as "Falling" hit the Top 10 in November of 1990 and "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart" skimmed the Top 75 the following spring.

For a couple of years after Twin Peaks took off and Lynch's star rose in Hollywood, there was hardly any new music from Cruise and Co outside of "Summer Kisses, Winter Tears" (which appeared on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World in 1991), and "Questions In A World Of Blue" (from the soundtrack to Lynch's disastrous feature-length prequel to Twin Peaks subtitled Fire Walk With Me). During this period of relative downtime, Cruise made the head-turning decision to join The B-52's on their Good Stuff tour in 1992 as a replacement for the departed Cindy Wilson. What many fans didn't know about Cruise at the time is that her singing voice as heard on Floating Into The Night is only a shadow of a much wider range she has at her command. Effortlessly belting out upbeat punk-pop songs alongside Kate Pierson, Cruise managed to keep the B-52's on the road during perhaps the most uphill battle of their career.

The Voice Of Love
Following the Good Stuff trek, Cruise re-teamed with Lynch and Badalamenti and released The Voice Of Love at the end of 1993. This time, however, Cruise found the odds stacked against her. While David Lynch may have been the Golden Boy of Hollywood in 1990, the bloom had come off the rose since that time, and the overwhelming critical and popular backlash following Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me pretty much ensured an icy reception for The Voice Of Love. Despite (or perhaps because of) a similar feel of creepy suspended-animation to that of Floating Through The Night, Cruise's second album sank without a trace. This also marked her Cruise's last collaboration to date with Badalamenti and Lynch.

In the years since 1993, Cruise has maintained a relatively low profile. Following an appearance on the Scream soundtrack in 1996, she slowly began to re-emerge through guest vocal work with electronic artist Khan's 1999 album 1-900-Get-Khan and as the featured vocalist on Hybrid's international dance hit "If I Survive" in 2001. Attempting to build on her re-acquired visibility, Cruise released a third solo album in 2002 through Varese. Perhaps predicatably, The Art Of Being Of A Girl is a very different kind of record than either of it's predecessors, incorporating many elements of modern electronica into the production and featuring the full range of her singing voice on record at last. Sadly, it met the same fate as The Voice Of Love.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Waterlillies

Ever been in a store and picked out a record to buy simply because something about it (the cover art, the titles, the producer, the label, whatever) looked kinda interesting? Tempted was one of those records for me.

Released in early August 1994, Tempted wasn't one of those records that occupied my CD changer months at a time, but instead a work that I found myself returning to on a few different occasions over the following months. Nearly 11 years later, Tempted still sits on my shelf, and a recent rediscovery of it's swirly treasures yielded this week's post.

For a brief time towards the end of 1994, it looked like Waterlillies would break out from the New York dance underground and make a serious play for the pop audience, as Sire Records released a couple of singles from Tempted and worked hard to break them at the radio level. Made up of producer Ray Carroll and vocalist Sandra Jill Alikas, Waterlillies had formed in the late 1980s and had released a similarly pretty debut album called Envoluptuousity to virtually no reaction at all in 1991. Perhaps best summed up by the somehow insistent swoon of “I Wanna Be There," Waterlillies specialized in music that was dance-floor friendly, yet incredibly soothing with Alikas' breathy, yearning vocals layered over a thick, pillowy bed of electronics.

Almost immediately upon release, Tempted represented a swift change of fortunes for the duo. While failing to make any inroads on the Billboard Hot 100, remixed versions of the disco-leaning title cut and the blissfully intoxicating “Never Get Enough” both generated considerable heat at danceclubs (the latter track even managed to top Billboard's Dance Chart). Encouraged by the warm reception, Waterlillies assembled a touring band and played an extensive array of shows in an effort to reach that much-talked-about "next level" of success. Apparently, such a break was just not in the cards.

Since very little biographical information exists on Waterlillies, it's impossible at this point to know exactly why Caroll and Alikas split the band up in 1995 (Dropped by the label? Artistic differences? Personal reasons?). Regardless, It is rather surprising and sad that the duo called it a day so quickly after this frustrating near-miss. Who knows? The third time could have been the charm...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Half-Hour Of Reality Blah Blah

My favorite new den of sinEnjoying a beautiful Saturday off of work today, since Brian and I switched days off this weekend. So, while I have a half hour to kill before possibly heading over to Cold Stone Creamery for a sinfully delicious ice cream concoction, I figured I'd write another "life" post.

In matters of work, Brian has a new full-time job he starts on Monday which is great news for him yet potentially rotten news for me, at least as far as free/vacation time is concerned. While this development won't be fundamentally altering my current work schedule at all, it does pretty much zap my ability to take days off in the hope that he can cover me as he did when I was sick for a few days a month ago.

In an ironic twist, Brian has also switched sporting engagements. This news would normally have me tapdancing across the floor in glee, but in the current circumstances it actually complicates things more than they were before. The last three summers have seen me using up my allotted vacation time taking Saturdays off in lieu of shorter Sundays while Brian played in a baseball league from May through July. The idea was we'd simply switch weekend days (like we did today) for a three-month span. Sundays are shorter days, hourwise, and I found that I greatly enjoyed having Saturdays off and was more able to go out and do things with friends than I normally can't do on Sundays due to our differing schedules. The drag with this switching off was that being on a salary figured at x hours per week, the only way I could keep from falling "behind" in work hours would be to use a few vacation hours every week to "fill up" my work time ... and by the time Brian's baseball "season" was over, my vacation time was totally used up. Thus, when I heard that he had switched to playing golf in a Friday league instead, I was immediately thrilled that I would actually have some vacation time to burn for a change...until the "new job" news screwed that all up. Now I actually have vacation time to burn and no easy way to burn it. Wunderbar.

Another thing Brian's new Friday commitment torpedoed was next weekend's Zombi concert. A difficult decision ensued: theoretically, I could pull strings somehow and get this to work, yet I also realize that I'm going to have to pick my day-off battles for the time being since my rescheduling resources are pretty damn limited. Thus, the Zombi show got the axe. Sorry, Karl. :(

In the much better news department, I am slowly but surely edging back towards financial daylight at last after barely getting by the last two months and change. Helping matters along here was an unannounced raise at work -- nothing spectacular, but an additional 7-8% of take-home pay definitely can't do any harm to my situation -- and a much-smaller-than-expected insurance bill this month. By my calculations, my horribly emaciated bank account should finally start gaining some weight by the middle of June. Hooray.

There is another matter slowly appearing on the horizon that will require some deep thought reflection, and posting space, as well as more fun financial worrying, but that can wait for another time (hint: it has to do with this condo). Right now, I think we're off to get some ice cream (a celebration treat for myself for the above financial news) and then, later this evening, Sarah and I are heading out to meet up with some of the "old gang" down in Twinsburg. Saturdays off truly rawk.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Sith Hits The Fan

WARNING: For anyone reading this, buried in these incoherent ramblings somewhere are some thoughts on Revenge Of The Sith. These thoughts are laced with what many call "spoilers," so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to wait until you have before reading this.

Star, not Episode IV. Just Star Wars, thank you very muchIt's a bit hard to remember now being nearly thirty years ago, but I think I saw Star Wars somewhere around a month after it was released. I'm pretty sure I was out of school at the time on those glorious summer vacations that seemed to last an eternity when you're eight years old, so we'll say June 1977 and leave it at that. My parents had gone out the night before and seen the movie with their friends. The next day, my mother and my "Aunt Marilyn" (her best friend at the time) took my brother and I and Marilyn's son Paul to see it: which I suppose indicated that they were pretty into it (or at least felt that it might keep us out of trouble for an afternoon). I remember very little about the experience, save for a couple of key iconic parts and telling my dad later that evening to his amusement that I really dug the Empire (which at that time meant Darth Vader).

To this day, I think we only saw Star Wars once in the theater, though it wouldn't surprise me to discover it was more than that, since theatrical movies back then played for months instead of weeks at a time. The movie certainly had a profound influence on my interests as a kid, since from that point onwards, just about any movie or T.V. show that had anything to do with space adventure was on my "must see" list, whether it was network shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, or movies like The Black Hole and Battle Beyond The Stars.

The Empire Strikes Back: hello, geekdomWhen The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, my best friend at the time (Rob VanNortwick) and his father took me to see the Saturday matinee showing on Day 2. As with Star Wars, I am unsure if we saw this more than once at the cinema, though I'm a little more sure that we did not. Not that it mattered, really, since it was this movie that officially made a full-blown Star Wars geek out of me. The expansion of the scale involved in the movie probably had the most to do with it, with new characters and planets and a much longer view of the battle between good and evil (suddenly Darth Vader was not The Bad Guy, but a cog in The True Bad Guy's machine, et cetera). Sure, I had a lot of the toys and had read some of the rather silly Marvel comic books by then, but I think I was still too young before 1980 to really achieve that slobbering degree of loyalty that separates the geeks from the casual fans. After Empire came out, I found myself suddenly compelled to spend stupid amounts of allowance money at Gray Drug across 12 Mile Road every week collecting all of the trading cards, novelizations, magazines, and making-of/behind the scenes books I could lay my hands on.

It goes without saying that by the time Return Of The Jedi came out in 1983, I had to be one of the first to see it (nevermind that I'd already swallowed the novelization and comic book adaptations whole by the time it was released). Jedi, incidentally, also started up the "opening day" tradition of seeing Star Wars movies for me, which has lasted to this day. By now, I had fallen in with a cadre of fellow Lucas geeks in my junior high school years, and we made a group event out of opening day by somehow wrangling all of our parents to let us catch a show right smack in the middle of a school week.

Return Of The Jedi: the very apex of my childhoodMay 25, 1983. Ah, this was a day to be remembered: about a half-dozen of us made our way to the Americana Theater (we had to have been dropped off and picked up again by somebody's parents...though I cannot at this time recall whose) after being let out of a particularly endless day at Alice J. Birney middle school. This was the pre-multiplex days, and the Americana had two screens housed in a building as large as most of the modern facilities in use today. Even considering how freaking huge the auditorium was, the line outside the theater was the longest I had ever seen for a film up to that point, and peppered with other kids from my school. After what felt like an eternity, we got inside and watched that fucker in 70mm Dolby Stereo as part of a joyously racuous audience (lots of lusty cheers and boos as the main characters appeared on screen) and had a whale of a time. Nevermind that dozens of chattering Ewoks and a handful of goofball monsters in Jabba's court made Jedi at times feel like something out of The Muppet Show, this was the capper event of my pre-adolescent life.

Save for multiple repeat viewings of the trilogy throughout high school after moving to Ohio and falling in with a smaller (though no less devoted) group of fellow superfans, that was pretty much the end of Star Wars being an active part of my life. Save for the VHS releases (which took years to happen back then), Star Wars was largely "a Michigan thing" as I had outgrown the toys and trading cards end of the whole enterprise by the end of 1983 and was finally starting to move on to other special interests. For about thirteen years after that, life went on, and while I would occasionally watch or riff on the "Holy Trilogy" with friends when the occasion warranted (and pick up the remastered widescreen versions like a good fanbitch), the thought of ever seeing Parts 1-3 or 7-9 actually happen never really crossed my mind.

Ah, but then George Lucas decided to test the waters for a new trilogy at long last by releasing the original films in theaters once again in early 1997. While the chance to see these movies on a big screen for the first time since I was a kid certainly would have sold me on that point alone, Lucas sweetened the deal by adding all kinds of enhanced visuals using modern computer animation effects to flesh out and spiff up scenes that were out of adequate technological reach at the time of the original productions. A few friends and I took in each re-release on opening night, dutifully keeping with tradition, and while some of the new CG work left me a bit cold (and frankly distracted at times), it was certainly an interesting experience, and it raised our expectations over what to expect in the least in a visual sense.

Star Wars I: The Phantom ClusterfuckBy the time The Phantom Menace (the first of 3 prequels to the original series and set some four decades before the events of the original Star Wars film) finally appeared to incredible anticipation (and expectations) in 1999, I had made the fatal mistake of expecting to be as blown away as I was when I first saw the original films as a kid. But something was different about this film...I wasn't anywhere near as engaged as I was beforehand. Even though I did wind up seeing Phantom two or three times at the theater, it was an empty experience that multiple viewings couldn't improve. It felt like this movie was aimed squarely at kids my niece's age, which made me wonder for the first time if the original films weren't. Was this what watching the original Star Wars felt like to a thirty year old in 1977? The younger generation sure seemed to eat it up, but I was having real problems accepting what I was seeing, no matter how amazingly snazzy some of it looked.

Over the years, I've come to think of The Phantom Menace as being in the same league as Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom in that during both films the first half is fucking excruciating to sit through, while the second half has enough extraneous activity onscreen to keep you interested...yet both ultimately fail to wipe away that agony incurred during the first hour.

Star Wars II: Electric BoogalooAttack Of The Clones followed to my far-diminished expectations in 2002, and (if nothing else) has stood up better over time than The Phantom Menace, though it was occasionally just as arduous to sit through. At least in this case the pain was spread out equally over the running time instead of during the opening hour. Jesus, I'm not trying to imply here that the original trilogy was on par with Masterpiece Theater, but the acting in these films seems so incredibly wooden it's staggering (which I'm quite certain is a by-product of acting to green screens and doing first-takes whenever possible). At least the "good parts" of Clones packed enough thrills to make the godawful "romance" scenes bearable, and the CGI Yoda actually looked like Yoda (and not like a doddering, post-chemo Cookie Monster like in Episode 1).

So now, at long last, we come to Revenge Of The Sith, ostensibly the very last of the Star Wars movies (though I believe that about as much as I believe in the Easter Bunny), and the one that ties together the prequels with the original classic trilogy. Sith takes a pretty tall order on the latter behalf, and I guess in that department it came off as good as can be expected: with this movie, it's not so much the surprises (though there were a couple) as the way things come together in the end that are meant to provide entertainment to longtime fans.

Like good little geeks, Sarah and I went over to the fuckin' mobbed local Regal multiplex for the midnight showing of Sith last night. Despite the scary amount of people present for this thing (five showings on five screens - all sold out) the crowd was thankfully pretty well-behaved during the film. The only real jerk in our vicinity was The Expert, as I refer to him. The Expert is that guy who knows everything about the film going into it and makes a show of explaining every cameo, spaceship and plot development to his group of buddies seated around him. Of course, The Expert wound up sitting just behind my right shoulder, but luckily for me he was drowned out most of the time by the sound system. Hooray.

O.K., let's talk movie.

Holding Sith up to the rather less-than-amazing standards of the last two movies, I'd say it was easily the best of the three, though it's certainly not without it's share of problems, many of which are the same issues discussed above minus the overtly kiddie angle (this is pretty violent going at times, particularly General Grievous: flop fopwhen Anakin starts to sizzle like an overcooked burger). Even dependable Chancellor Palpatine starts to grate on the nerves a bit after his unveiling as Darth Sidious (oh please, like you really didn't know). Immediately after this unveiling, Palpatine switches over to high camp mode -- a near-comical slide into Scooby-Doo-style overacting which worked in 1983 when you didn't know The Emperor from Adam but feels very "off " when you're used to how silky smooth evil Palpatine was without lots of latex makeup and contact lenses on. The movie's other big meanie, General Grievous, is by name alone the single lamest villain idea we've seen from Lucas yet. Watching him during the course of the movie, Greivous is hard to take seriously as a threat of any kind -- he spends most of his time castigating droid underlings in the manner of an asthmatic Montgomery Burns while stalking around looking like some kind of biomechanical toothpaste dispenser.

In the "plus" department, though, I have to admit I found a lot of the "droid soldier" humor to be a scream ... but then I am a sucker for throwaway background jokes like these. There were lightsaber fights galore throughout, with Mace Windu vs Darth Sidious a real highlight as well as The Mother Of All Lightsaber Battles in the final third of the movie. During said clash, Obi-Wan Kenobi's anguish before and during the matchup was pretty convincingly portrayed (Ewan MacGregor has long been one of the bright points in the prequels, acting-wise). Perhaps the most satisfying plot surprise in the film for me was the truly diabolical "Order 66," which definitely belongs on Palpatine's Greatest Hits collection of anticipatory chess moves.

Crawwwling throooouuugh my skiiiinEven more remarkable about Revenge Of The Sith is that I actually liked the character of Anakin Skywalker. For the first time in this new trilogy, the central character in all of this silly geekery comes off believably as a person and makes for a fittingly noble Jedi Knight...well, at least for the first half of the movie, anyway. After a certain plot point is reached, poor Anakin reverts back to vintage Clones form as the petulant, bratty sulking teenager you want to smack upside the head after throwing his Linkin Park records in the trashbin. And, I'm sorry, but Anakin/Vader's "evil" glare -- tilting his head down while glowering at the camera like Alex in A Clockwork Orange -- is just not very convincing.

So, that's that. We have come full circle at last. The credits roll after the storylines merge -- Luke and Leia are shuttled away to live in seclusion on separate worlds, Yoda huffles off to Shuffalo, Jar Jar Binks walks by the camera without saying a single word (woo!), and the familiar black armored figure of Darth Vader watches from the bridge of a two-headed proto-Star Destroyer as the framework for the Death Star is being set up (wow, these took longer to build than I thought) while the Emperor and a young Grand Moff Tarkin hover around nearby.

The rube and the city slicker

I guess in a sick way I am grateful for the existence of these prequels, though I certainly think to myself after seeing the last of them that sometimes it's better for a story to simply say "This is The Bad Guy. Why? Because, that's why!" and leave it at that. If there is one single problematic thread running throughout the entire new trilogy, it's having to accept supreme intergalactic badass Darth Vader as a precociously cute ten-year old kid running around yelling "yippie!" and then seeimg him as a terminally annoying and bitchy teenager ... not to mention unbelievably, incredibly, and galactically stupid (not to mention gullible) when it counted the most. It's very difficult to reconcile this backstory with the calculating and precise Vader we came to know during the orginal trilogy: a figure that frequently force-choked incompetent officers to death, tortured and froze Han Solo alive just for the hell of it and abetted in the annihilation of an entire planet for crissakes. Realizing that all of this came on because Vader really misses mom (and/or wanted to make his secret wife happy and secure) just sounds so damn silly...

NP Star Wars Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith Soundtrack (surprise surprise)

The Cosby kids, a robot, and the family dog

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Performance

After spending the last couple of months talking exclusively about electropop acts from the 1980s, I think it's time for the Synthpop Sunday Brunch to try a change of venue ... at least in a temporal sense.

Everything is cyclical in the music biz, and with the high profile re-emergence of danceably melodic post-punk rock (Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Stellastarr, Hot Hot Heat) over the last couple of years, it would seem to follow that it must only be a matter of time before synthpop (post-punk's pretty-boy younger brother, if you will) reclaims the spotlight once centered on the likes of The Human League, Soft Cell, Thomas Dolby and Berlin. Should another moment of mass-appeal glory for the genre come around again, the English foursome Performance is definitely the band most suited to be standing at the front of the stage.

Cursed with a band name that twists the simple act of Google searching into a bloody nightmare, Performance owes their existence to a happy accident. Longtime friends Joe Cross (electronic percussion) and Joe Stretch (lead vox) would show up and perform their own compositions in front of Manchester's Café Pop. Apparently, the owners of the establishment had finally had enough of the duo and were throwing them off the premises just as Billie Marsden (synths) and her sister Laura (guitars/backing vox) came walking by. Following this fortuitous meeting (and the subsequent purchase of a sequencer), Performance was born and their debut single, the braying electro-punk missive "Dotted Line," was issued at the end of 2003.

Now the current toast of the Manchester electropop scene, Performance inhabits the middle ground between ultramodern and anachronism. By utilizing some classic punk attitude, the invasive analog synth textures of modern electroclash, melodic old-school synthpop arrangements (think Japanese Whispers-era Cure or early New Order), and Stretch's occasionally glam-foppish delivery/stage presence, Performance raise the genre above its fey, withdrawn anti-image of recent years and restore some of its fashionable swagger and sass. Luckily, they also pack some killer tunes, the best of which became their second single.

A sublime exercise in criminally addictive electropop, "Love Life" is one of the catchiest damn singles I've heard in a very long time. Ever since I first stumbled across this track a couple of months ago**, "Love Life" became one of those songs that became a bit of an obsession for me, occupying my head for hours at a time whenever I'd think of it (this pleasantly persistent brain itch that was only scratched by landing a physical copy from here this past week).

For those who enjoyed the above track, several other songs by Performance - in complete and demo form - are available for streaming on their website. At last check, an full-length album is currently in the works and should be released in the UK this summer on Polydor. Woohoo!

** I first came across this song when a friend pointed me to a site hosting its promotional video, which apparently ran on British MTV around the time of the single's release at the end of November 2004. This rather strikingly iconic clip (the band calls it "a three minute meditation on the escalating levels of militancy in the generation below us") is available for viewing here.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Propaganda

propaganda - 1985
Things started happening quickly for the Dusseldorf-based art-synth collective Propaganda following a relocation to England in 1983. At the time of the move, the year-old group was made up of keyboardist Ralf Dörper, programmer Andreas Thin, percussionist Michael Mertens and vocalists Suzanne Freytag and Claudia Brücken.

Signed to producer Trevor Horn's Zang Tumb Tuum (ZTT) Records (the home of such similarly, wonderfully bloody-minded "pop-art" projects as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and The Art of Noise), it seemed that Propaganda had found an ideal home as their somewhat theatrical and very-European sounding mix of icy synthpop sensibilites and stone-faced classical pretense was a perfect fit with Horn's detailed, expansive production style and ZTT's provacative, sometimes-obtuse image marketing department.

The band's debut ZTT single, 1984's "Dr. Mabuse," did a workmanlike job of priming the pump for future success: cracking the U.K. Top 30 and generating quite a bit of demand for the band's first album. However, this level of anticipation would be severely tested as Propaganda were forced to wait nearly a full year to release their follow-up single ("Duel"), and had their album kept on ice as well, the reason being that ZTT had their hands full promoting Frankie Goes To Hollywood's debut album Welcome To The Pleasuredome on a worldwide scale.

By the time Propaganda's debut album (A Secret Wish) was released in June of 1985, Thein had already departed the lineup, fed up with ZTT's timetable. From the looks of the album credits, it doesn't looks like he was missed too much as the list of guest contributors to the record is almost a news story in itself: Steve Howe (!?), David Sylvian, Ian Mosley, Glenn Gregory and Stewart Copeland are listed, along with extensive production guidance from Horn (and featuring typically bleak photography by longtime U2 confidante Anton Corbijn).

While the chart singles from the album were striking on their own right, it was the remarkably cinematic piece that opened A Secret Wish that had me from hello. A reflective masterpiece, “Dream Within A Dream" is a nine-minute classical/pop hybrid that layers the words of Edgar Allan Poe over a sprawling, hypnotic musical bed that owes more in structure to opera than anything troubling the UK Top 40 in mid-1985. With Freytag providing a Nico-esque reading of the lyric, the music around her steadily builds up from a lone trumpet to a stormy, chaotic midsection and then leaves us floating off in a calm, gorgeous reverie ... a synthpop take on Pink Floyd's "Echoes," if you will.

Capitalizing on the album's momentum, Propaganda briefly toured the UK in the fall of 1985, but after that, everything went pear-shaped in a hurry. Perhaps the most catastrophic development was the departure of Brücken for an eventual solo career. As the outspoken, moody central figure in the group's interviews and videos, Brücken's loss was possibly a mortal blow on its own, though group tensions with the record company concerning the release of a poor-selling (though highly-rated) remix album called Wishful Thinking may have been exacerbated by the singer being "married into" ZTT (specifically, art director Paul Morley).

It wasn't much later that Propaganda quietly disintegrated: the victims of an interminably-lengthy legal battle with ZTT's legal department (the usual "artistic/business differences" kind of story). Following the cessation of label hostilities in 1988, a new version of the band emerged with Mertens as the only original member. Joined by Derek Forbes and Brian McGee (both ex-Simple Minds and both originally employed for the band’s 1985 tour), and American vocalist Betsi Miller, the Mertens-led incarnation of Propaganda released 1234 through Virgin Records in 1990 to very muted response. Since that time, only a rarities compilation called Outside World has surfaced from the depths. A much awaited all-new followup release to 1234, originally slated to appear in 2000, has never materialized.