September 3, 2009

La Roux.

Forty years ago, electronic music aficionados hardly strained themselves counting the women active in the field. Ten fingers would suffice to handily index Ruth Anderson, Charlotte "Bebe" Barron, Delia Derbyshire, Maddalena Fagandini, Pauline Oliveros, Daphne Oram, and Eliane Radigue. Relegated to the sidelines - more so in popular than academic electronic music - they were rarely involved in composition or production, and when they were their contributions were trivialised. However, this staunchly male bastion has in the past two decades been overrun by women, increasing its popularity as well as tremendously decreasing its nerdiness to the point where currently all bets on artist of the year among hipster trendspotters lie with new, female electro pop artists.

There are several reasons for this, not all of them progressive. One is the continually shifting trends in popular music. This year, slovenly male guitar bands are out, smart solo electro poppers are in. Leading the charge (with a large, female-fronted electro underground bleeping under the mainstream radar) are Victoria Hesketh (alias Little Boots), Joanne Germanotta (alias Lady Gaga), and Eleanor "Elly" Jackson - the most prominent half of the duo La Roux. All in their early twenties, all likely adept with gadgets and computers since elementary school, all reaching for their computers rather than medieval guitars when in the mood to compose music.

The current recession may be another reason favouring these DIY divas. The need for buoyant escape has increased, while recording label budgets have shrunk. Solo artists, plugging away at their musical devices in their bedrooms, can churn out product far cheaper than any bunch of meat-and-two-veg rockers, slacking about a professional studio at (on average) C$50 per hour. To the major media conglomerates, who've never bothered to disguise their far from philanthropic interest in popular culture, rock and rap currently amount to a thin, bland, and severely overpriced gruel, while the rising electrogrrrl riot seems sleek, exciting, and modern by comparison. Never mind cost-effective.

It's a combination of circumstances that have not only helped La Roux's self-titled debut album earn a nomination for the Mercury Prize (the British equivalent of the Polaris Music Prize), but also helped the band bar the recently deceased Michael Jackson from the top of the UK singles chart, creating a surge in the UK sales of (physical) singles in the process. A fitting revival, courtesy of a retro-tinged band, for a format which spent it's 60th anniversary this year circling the drain, having been declared defunct by the music industry at the beginning of the decade. The album opens with In for the Kill, La Roux's second, shrill breakthrough single which - despite being dismissed in March by BBC Radio One as "too tinny" to warrant airplay - by the end of July had sold more than half a million hard copies in the UK alone.

Seems most people don't rely on an outmoded medium like wireless to know a good tune when they download it: In for the Kill occupied number two on the UK singles chart for five consecutive weeks, the longest synth pop grip on that slot since Ultravox's Vienna in February 1981. Without so much as coming up for air, the album slips straight into its far strongest number, the Moog-driven faux tango nuevo that is Tigerlily - complete with sleazy voice over from Elly Jackson's thespian father Kit. Then the momentum is momentarily punctuated by Quicksand, the band's debut single released last fall on French independent label Kitsuné. A top twenty hit in Canada (scraping into #153 in the UK), it's a track that finds the duo far too busy flirting with Prince's When Doves Cry to develop a memorable chorus of their own. Which is a pity as it contains some of the album's most striking lines: "You, you moved into my mind again ... walking around rent-free."

But Quicksand soon gives way to Bulletproof, La Roux's third single. Living up to its title to an even greater degree than In for the Kill, it's the first original synth pop track to reach the top of the UK singles chart since Adamski's acid house anthem Killer in May 1990. (Unless one counts Erasure's ABBA covers EP, Abba-esque, in June 1992.) Of course, that's ignoring casual stabs at electro pop from the likes of Kylie, Robyn, and Madonna. But simply using computers - as do most recordings, regardless of genre, these days - doesn't make one synth pop. Although, the parallels constantly drawn between new bands like La Roux and the 1980s have more to do with music critics' lack of familiarity with electronic music than these newcomers' particular pedigree; not everyone using a synthesiser has been directly inspired by Kraftwerk.

A track like Bulletproof is in fact a perfect example of La Roux's debt to the late 1980s house revival of barebones electronic dance music, rather than the late 1970s wave of electro pop. Not surprising, given that their rough-hewn sound - maintaining that slight distortion acquired while composing in a living room on synthesisers borrowed from friends - is largely due to the solid 1990s club credentials of Ben Langmaid, the practically invisible half of the duo. It was allegedly Langmaid who steered the folk rock inspired Elly Jackson towards vintage synthesisers, introducing her to early recordings of bands like Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, and Heaven 17. The band's contemporary perspective is further hinted at in Colourless Colour, with its reference to "early nineties décor." Not particularly steampunk, they're probably not alluding to the 1890s.

The packaging of the album on the other hand, quite intentionally takes its cues from the early 1980s, with Jackson's familiar Brixton stomping grounds given a Blade Runner-esque, tech noir once over. Making that multiethnic area of London vaguely reminiscent of the dilapidated core of practically every average metropolis, with the accompanying assortment of insalubrious entertainments and roaming ruffians, required no stretch of imagination - as art director Alexander Brown found out when threatened with a knife while photographing the Brixton station overpass to provide backgrounds for photographer Andrew Whitton's glossy portraits of La Roux's striking, redheaded vocalist. The successful fusion of imagery has undoubtedly contributed to Elly Jackson's asymmetric hair and idiosyncratic wardrobe garnering more attention than her musical talent. Her voice, if mentioned at all, is most often compared to Ann Lennox, or Allison Goldfrapp - likely the only other synth pop divas middle aged rock critics can think of.

Though on tracks like Fascination and the upcoming single I'm Not Your Toy, Jackson's strained falsetto is frankly more reminiscent of Billy Ray Martin, an equally striking vocalist perhaps best remembered for leading the short-lived house outfit Electribe 101. Lyrically, La Roux's first collection of recordings could be construed as a concept album, documenting a particularly tempestuous love affair - purportedly with some basis in Elly Jackson's personal life. The blunt observations sit rather well with the jaunty pop songs, but have also earned Jackson a reputation as somewhat of a loudmouth among the quite unforgiving British media. Stylistically steeped in the glory days of post-punk, when radical ideas and pioneering instrumentation enjoyed their first brief flirt with mainstream success, the brash attitude shouldn't come as a surprise.

When finalising La Roux's contract with the venerable Polydor label - saved several times in its 85 year history by smart signings, only narrowly missing out on the Beatles - Jackson reportedly turned up wearing a t-shirt inscribed "I am a cunt." Such precariousness isn't unusual in a genre which attracts a large number of solo artists used to getting their way, given theirs is mostly a solitary pursuit. But it also quite frequently leads some of them to shoot themselves in the foot in spectacularly stupid ways. Hopefully, Jackson's habit of thinking out loud is merely a sign of inexperience rather than cheap publicity ballyhoo, and will find an outlet in future recordings as opposed to increasingly hostile press. It would be a pity if this year's most successful new synth pop act disappeared in a puff of poorly formulated comments.

Not yet finely honed, La Roux's craft holds room for future improvements, and isn't solely dependent on electricity; careful listeners will discover choice bits of acoustic instruments hidden in the mix. Elly Jackson may not comfortably inhabit her range yet, but already possesses a unique voice, allowed to sound on its own with scarcely any treatment. The album does contain a couple of duds - the aforementioned Quicksand and the mopey ballad Cover My Eyes, a track that easily clinches this years prize for most underutilised gospel choir. But it's precisely the "rough diamond" quality that'll likely appeal most to an audience increasingly accustomed to continuous progress throughout their favourite artists' careers. Electronic music is after all a genre obsessed - as was the recently deceased electric guitar and recording innovator Les Paul - with discovering new, hitherto unheard sounds. La Roux's overall pithy debut collection of bright synth pop, briefly recapitulating the past, is a promising start.

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