Cosmic backlash

Pub date October 22, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


Everyone agrees that disco is alive and proliferating. But is it devolving from au courant status into something that deserves the 21st century version of a stadium vinyl bonfire? Genres are vague in the realm of electronic music, and disco has become almost as ubiquitous and generic an overarching tag as techno. The neo-disco banner now stretches from the Fire Island revivalism of Hercules and Love Affair, and Escort to the cosmic expeditions of Lindstrom and his disciples. Clearly, it must be made of something synthetic.

Between the flaming diva pageantry of Hercules and the heterosexual prog geekery of Hans-Peter, one finds the languid romantic intellectualism of Morgan Geist. In recent interviews, Geist questions contemporary disco’s existence, though his rarity compilation Unclassics (Environ, 2004) and his work with Metro Area have played a major role in its formation. Yet technically speaking, he’s right. His new Double Night Time (Environ) kicks off with "Detroit," where instead of disco, the North American home of techno is evoked. Still, austerity aside, "Detroit" is a techno track as much as it’s a disco track, meaning not very. It is new romantic: an effete little brother of butch post-punk and femme disco, with a Motor City radio DJ heart that belongs to Mike Halloran as much as the Electrifying Mojo.

The late avant-disco pioneer Arthur Russell is often invoked in relation to Geist, but Double Night Time is cooler and more reserved. Guest vocalist Kelley Polar doesn’t croon with the mannered zeal that defines his own 2008 venture away from Metro Area, I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling (Environ). In fact, he’s hard to differentiate from the album’s other mannered vocalist, Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys. While Russell’s music is cerebral, his tenor never seems detached. In contrast, when Greenspan declares that he wants to cry during "Most of All," it comes across as a come-on. That doesn’t mean it isn’t seductive, though, and Geist’s chiming sound reaches a chilly peak on the low-key yet bravura relationship post-op "Ruthless City."

Lindstrom’s first proper solo album — after a compilation, and a full-length collaboration with Prins Thomas — is a different neo-disco creature. Whereas Geist presents nine pop-inflected compositions in less than 50 minutes, Where You Go I Go Too (Smalltown Supersound) stretches three tracks to nearly an hour. Where exactly does Lindstrom go on the 29-minute title track? To my ears, he disappears into a Tangerine Dream and reemerges as Cerrone: a whirligig melody that echoes the motif of Cerrone’s 1978 disco classic "Supernature" adds whimsy to wave upon wave of arpeggio. But what do I know? One local music shop detractor has compared Lindstrom’s latest to the sounds of Paul Lekakis, the actor-model-vocalist who brought the world "Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)."

On Hatchback’s Colours of the Sun (Lo Recordings), San Francisco’s Sam Grawe steers clear of any Lekakis-isms, though arpeggio for arpeggio, there’s a definite Lindstrom-on-ludes feel to the penultimate track, "White Diamond." Hatchback drives right up to the exact spot — a couch at the edge of a dancefloor? — where disco slips off the term cosmic disco. Grawe knows krautrock and cosmiche music inside out, but like his pal Daniel Judd of Sorcerer, he’s at his best crafting soundtracks for cheesy movies that don’t exist but should. "Closer to Forever" is exquisite, and "Jetlag" is a slab of montage funk that could make Harold Faltermeyer jealous and even get David Hasselhoff to stop eating burgers off the floor.

If neo-disco and its cosmic substrata are courting a backlash the size of Paul Lekakis’ glutes, it’s because of an onslaught of opportunistic comps with "space" or "disco" in their titles. Especially when placed in close proximity to one another, those words — along with "Balearic" — are surefire groan inducers. Yet there are always a few exceptions to the rule. One is Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! (Eskimo), a mix co-created by the man who invented cosmic disco, Italian DJ Daniele Baldelli. While it doesn’t approach the euphoria of Baldelli’s 2007 Baia degli Angeli mixes, its strictly ’80s sources — further proof that neo-disco is new romantic — include some eccentric pleasures, especially "Ulster Defense," perhaps the world’s first and only pro-IRA dancefloor anthem.

Likewise, Alexis Le Tan and Jess’ Space Oddities (Permanent Vacation) transcends a generic title through a combo of irreverence and dedication that’s as rare as any of the European library grooves it rediscovers. The bloodless boogie of a track titled "Cloning" is hypnotic. Better still is "Black Safari," an electronic answer to Moondog’s jungle-sound freakout "Big Cat." If a 1977 disco track can cast its net wide enough to capture Moondog and roaring elephants and growling tigers, then surely a 2008 neo-disco track can find a sense of humor within its vast cosmic — or retro-homo — space. In fact, that’s exactly what 21st century disco will require to escape the hipster equivalent of a stadium bonfire. *