The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

My first instinct after listening to, and hugely enjoying, Light & Magic, the second album by Ladytron, was that this was a guilty pleasure. Guilt in that every sound on this record could have been produced before 1989; guilt that this record is in its own way as much of a consolidation of an old form of music as anything by all those guitar bands with five letters in their name.

But why should guilt even be an issue? Is this the unwanted side-effect of becoming a professional music writer, the feeling that "nowness" is all that counts, that anything which doesn't tell you something you didn't already know is by definition worthless? David S Ware's Cryptology could have been recorded in 1965; it doesn't make it any less of an emotionally staggering record than it already is. Should I feel guilty about loving Ladytron and not loving Horsepower Productions or the new Missy Elliott? Why can't critics in general shake this aesthetic monkey off their backs?

With me, it's simply that (a) some forms of musical consolidation are, by dint of personal taste, more acceptable to me than others; and (b) of course the other worthwhile art is that which does tell you something you already know, but in a new and interesting way. And Light & Magic is a great pop album which sadly will probably sell diddly-squat in the "soulful" noughties.

Observe the cover (or at least the cover of the US import version which I have); four black-clad individuals, photographed in close-up against a stark white background. On the rear cover, two men, one Japanese, the other looking like the drummer out of Swinging Blue Jeans, The. On the front cover, two women, one of Eastern European, slightly exotic appearance, the other English. None of the faces expresses any emotion or gives anything away.

The vocals, too, are delivered in that post-Grace Jones/pre-Laetitia Sadier deadpan/dispassionate manner. This will obviously curry no favour with today's pop music templates, which command (as they have done for the best part of 15 years) that voices must be "soulful," must tear themselves apart in their emotional peaks, in their over-noted howling. Look at Popstars and Fame Academy; they've all been forced at bayonet point to squeal, holler, howl in best post-Houston/Carey/Dion style, because this is now the lingua franca of pop; what Reynolds rightly termed "the totalitarianism of passion." Which also now extends into real life; Louise Woodward, essentially jailed for not displaying the correct set of emotions, for not playing a role.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that Ladytron (despite the Roxy-derived name, they are far better than that rather overblown post-prog song) deal in kitsch; this is deadly serious stuff. "True Mathematics" sets the tone; named after a particularly austere late '80s group of hip hop operatives, this has an unforgiving electrobeat and a pared-down, processed, purposely a-emotional voice, issuing what sound like diktats, like a Home Counties Gina X. But there is humanity too: "Seventeen," the imminent single and a guaranteed top five hit 20 years ago, states baldly over and over "they only want you when you're 17/when you're 21, there's no fun" sung from beneath a cheese grater as the petrol station synths sing a poignant song over the "Fade to Grey" rhythm. The punctum in this song occurs on the two occasions when the vocalist is left alone and the keyboards start a descending augmented jazz chord sequence, only to be pitilessly cut off by the beat and main riff coming back in after the third chord.

But this record does not stay in 1982. It is a reverie of the 1980s in general, as evinced by "Flicking Your Switch" and "Black Plastic" which are basically Acieed House grooves. "Turn It On" is Streetsounds electro redirected by Chris & Cosey; Salt'-n-Pepa's "Push It" riff warped into different contortions. "Fire" is a slower sexual grind which recalls MBV's "Cigarette In Your Bed" remixed by Front 242 with Kim Deal on vocals.

And out of all this "futurism" they produce the fantastic "Blue Jeans," a '60s teen ballad but with intensely magnified drums and correspondingly compressed strings; the Shangri-La's meet early Art of Noise. "Startup Chime" marches down the same path - a Spectorised Saint Etienne, the singer audibly swooning amidst the sonic haze, an epic threnody which seems lyrically to stem from nothing more than "a weekend away."

Did I say Chris & Cosey? While I don't agree with my Uncut colleague Stephen Dalton that "Evil" sounds like the Sugababes on smack, it is an immensely poignant electro-ballad (more like Kim Wilde on Lemsip disguised as E, I'd say) and comes with a completely unexpected coda of repeated screams which could have come straight off Throbbing Gristle's D.O.A. And "Nuhorizons" recaptures the lo-fi urgency of Cabaret Voltaire circa Voice Of America. There is plenty of acknowledgement of the grey area as well as the shiny yellow cloisters of New Pop. "Cease2Exist" is driven by a noticeably tougher beat and asks awkward if fatalistic questions about dying ("would you really be missed?"). "Re-Agents" starts off as a post-Joy Division low-to-mid range workout before stepping up a startling gear into a more alien environment with a now sinisterly echoed vocal. It ultimately returns to the beginning motif, but now equipped with foreknowledge. The title track is a waltz with grand minor chord changes (probably nearer to John Foxx than John Barry, but that is not necessarily a bad thing) while the closing track "The Reason Why" achieves the feat of penetrating the limbo land between comfort and alienation which Black Box Recorder never quite achieved (too knowing, too aware).

It is an insanely danceable record and you could easily sing along to most of it. It exists in a different spectrum to that of electroclash; like Saint Etienne, Ladytron put their collective finger precisely on the nerve where the peculiarly British strand of fatalistic futurism in pop achieves its most phenomenal results.

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