Pop-music critics lead miserable lives. Harried by editors by day, we spend our nights haunted by the suspicion that no one much cares what we think, because who besides a moron would bother writing seriously about pop music in the first place?
So why do we do it? Well, there’s always the free stuff. But we have our darker reasons, as well. Me, I’m trying to atone for crimes committed in a past lifetimenamely, my late adolescencewhen I was the kind of intolerant little snot who ran around telling everyone who would listen that the members of Abba were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Ah, youth. Over the years, I’ve grown to love Abba for its polished sheen and utter inconsequentiality, and I’ve often found myself awaiting the rise of a new Abba for me to love and for a whole new generation of little zealots to savage and despise.
Well, my wait is over. Because Liverpudlian quartet Ladytron is Abba rebornright down to the two-guys-two-girls lineup, heavenly vocals, and dumb obsession with disco glamourand its new album, 604, is dance-fabulous. You would expect style over substance from a band that takes its name from a Roxy Music song, and Ladytron doesn’t disappoint: Its members like to pose in identical black turtleneck sweaters, and the NME has labeled the group’s look “existential art-terrorist chic meets [a] Comme des Garçons catwalk show.”
But don’t let that put you off, because Europeans have somehow come to believe that making shallow, fashion-conscious pop music is a revolutionary activity, right up there with storming the Bastille. Just take a look at Stereolabor Chumbawamba, for that matter: Like both of them, Ladytron is a great singles band. I count nine cool radio-ready tunes on 604which makes it as hit-heavy as Abba’s Forever Gold or even The Best of Blondie. Aside from a couple of unexceptional look-ma-we’re-Kraftwerk-style instrumentals, 604 is filler-free and eminently catchy. As my wife put it, Ladytron makes “electronic music you actually want to listen to.”
The groupHelen Marnie on vocals, piano, synthesizer, and percussion; Bulgarian Mira Aroyo on vocals, Korg Micro Preset synthesizer, electric guitar, and Stylophone; Daniel Hunt on various electronic gadgets and electric guitar; and Reuben Wu on Roland SHO9 synthesizer, violin, and rhythm boxkicks off 604 with the instrumental “Mu-Tron,” an amusing slice of robo-funk that would provide the perfect accompaniment for that legion of identical supermodels who used to sway stiffly through Robert Palmer videos.
Ladytron follows “Mu-Tron” with a couple of dance-friendly synth-pop baubles, including the irresistible club-kid sneer “Discotraxx” (“I know her/Used to follow everywhere we’d go/And it’s so sweet/Now she’s sleeping with a boy I know/A boy I know/Knows a pretty girl in every town/And the way they look/They were made to let each other down”) and the goofy consumer anthem “Paco!,” which features Aroyo as the singing directory map of a large department store (“Ground floor: ladies clothes, sportswear, stationery/First floor: kitchenware, furnishings, confectionery,” and so on). The big message? “You don’t have to spend/You just have to pretend.”
“Playgirl” is the epitome of ironic detachment, served up in danceable form, its programmed hand claps, swoops of synthesized sound, and playful percussion all serving to render innocuous the sarcastic slant of the lyrics (“Northern lights catch you coming down/Sleep your way out of your hometown”), which are sung by Marnie in tones of the blandest seductiveness. “Ladybird” is very, very Abba and the closest we’re likely to get, in its depiction of unattainable club-girl perfection, to another “Dancing Queen.” Marnie sings in a voice as cool and perfect as the synthesizers accompanying her: “If you’ve got time and you’re ever to change her mind/You’ll need more than a glass of wine/She’s not that kind of girl.” And I really like the swelling church organ and big thumping beat of “Another Breakfast With You,” which spins the absurd lyric “I didn’t feel a thing when you told me/That you didn’t feel a thing when I told you/That I didn’t feel a thing/Another breakfast with you,” before breaking into a neat keyboard break that could have come right off Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump.
And so it goes, one effortlessly catchy anthem after another. The so-dumb-it’s-brilliant “He Took Her to a Movie” is the story of the world’s dullest love triangle; each verse ends, “He took her to a movie/But so did I.” “Jet Age” begins with the coolest opening beats since the Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” and features Aroyo as the voice on an airport’s intercom system. Then, while the guitars get all Spanish and a church organ drones, Marnie tells us in a shimmery whisper that “She’s dancing on her own/To the kind of disco sound/That makes her glad he’s not around.” All of which leads up to the question “Do you want to be her?/Or don’t you?/Of course you do/But would she be you?”
In Ladytron’s mythical club world, all the kids are hip and beautiful and feel nothing at all. The music is all about surfaces, the illusion of perfection, and the search for the unattainable beneath the flashing lights of some trendy dance floor where the DJ is God and the night goes on forever. Sure, it’s shallow and unreal, but that’s the point: “You don’t have to spend/You just have to pretend.” CP