Pop music was better when it had a human face. Pop stars shouldn’t be pale DJs in yellow-tinted glasses spinning jungle to a gaggle of undulating children high on methamphetamine. Or, at least to hear the Glasgow trio Bis tell it, those DJs may know more about neck-snapping breakbeats than Madonna, but none of them can lift her iron-cone bra of personality, let alone summon a culture’s interest for more than three minutes on the dance floor.
Whether you agree with that paraphrase of Bis’ new single, “Action and Drama,” or not, you’ve got to admit that the sentiment resonates. Why are the most ambitious and freshest new forms of pop music completely lacking a human element? Hiphop has got both id and ego to spare, but what’s up with the other forms of turntable/sampler/drum-machine music? Sure, substance should reign over style, but no artist has ever made a lasting contribution to pop music without a healthy dose of style infused in his work. Listen to Bis tell it like it is: “In the late 1990’s into the twenty-first century/The idols, the press darlings are the faceless DJs/That’s not to say that I’m not, a techno disco lover/I keep it under cover,” sing the brothers John Disco and Sci-Fi Steven. On the chorus, both boys sing “I just want some personality/Who to look up to, who I’m supposed to be,” while Manda Rin harmonizes, “Give me action and drama/Give me eighties Madonna/.” Or how about “I’m no pro-retro know-all, I want faces for the future/ I’d like my idols human, not programmed in computers,” from the same song? With a musical backing that sounds a bit like the theme song from Futurama, it’s clear that the band members love techno disco—they just want more than 180 beats per minute from it. A pretty cheeky request for a trio of pop-loving young things from a land often thought of as somewhat funereal.
The members of Bis want pop to advance beyond itself, so they write dance songs to think about. On their second full-length record, Social Dancing, they reconcile the rock underground’s desire to break out of the all-too familiar molds that seem to have stifled it a bit, with its pathological fear of all things overtly fabulous and, well, fun. They take the best parts of drum machines, samplers, and Bananaramalike vocal arrangements and add post-punk guitar grooves to create some brilliantly fresh updates on an appropriately maligned formula.
Ever since Gang of Four went from being an impressively funky punk-rock band railing against disco as state-organized mind control to releasing a string of morose dance records, there has been tension between punk aesthetics and dance music. You’re far more likely to hear old funk, soul, or reggae influences when punks write hip-moving material than a serious collaboration between Roni Size and the likes of the New Bomb Turks. Social Dancing might be the most effective recent mind-meld between sophisticated art and shamelessly entertaining disco for the discerning palate.
Credit for this success must be shared with Bis’ choice of producer. Hiring Andy Gill, the Gang of Four guitarist, may have been the best personnel move in pop music this year. Who better to record both social statements like “I’m a Slut” and “Shopaholic” and grooved-out techno dub numbers like “Detour,” than a musician whose contributions to both styles are unrivaled? Gill’s guitar style has profoundly influenced U2, Duran Duran, Fugazi, Nirvana, and everyone else, and his production and arrangements give the punk rock guitars and electronic beats on Social Dancing an organic feel. It seems he can be credited with reshaping the Bis sound, from semi-atonal and amateurishly charming in previous releases to refined and focused on its goal of improving pop’s range of style.
However, those accolades for Gill should not be construed as an attempt to take away from the impressive accomplishments of the band. Manda Rin sings “I’m a Slut,” a take on a woman made prisoner by her own lack of self-worth and the insecurity of her boyfriend, with impressive nuance. The lines “‘Cos I’m a slut/And I provoke/You to do these things to me/Why can’t I wear make-up tonight?/Don’t really think my T-shirt’s too tight” would ooze with sarcasm and vitriol from a punk band, but Rin moves beyond the obvious by falling into the character of a woman who would tolerate such oppression. It’s a more powerful statement in some ways than similar material from a few riot-grrrl bands. It’s a situation that brings anger, but Rin effortlessly leaves the overt judgment to someone else, making it more personal to hear and react to.
The Bis technique involves building a backing track from well-programmed drum machines and samplers and then adding distorted, but shiny, New Wave-style guitars. The band members also appear to have mastered, maybe with the help of Gill, the subtle art of arranging complex pop vocals around multiple tracks of chords and effects. The credits indicate that Gill occasionally plays some guitar on Social Dancing, and it shows. Throughout the record, from time to time, you can hear that same careful guitar glistening with treble and a polished, yet hot, distortion adding a line of perfect noise to the mix. His style is so ubiquitous, however, that it might be one of the brothers playing it—but Gill should get props anyway for literally inventing the whole feel first. “Detour,” with vocal help from hipster songwriter Lois Maffeo, delivers the calmest music track. Bordering on the triphop of Massive Attack and Tricky, “Detour” gives the kids a chance to use intonation in building a groove that sounds delicate but not lightweight. About three minutes into its mesmerizing disco-dub, a guitar springs to the front shimmering with warmth. It’s analog meets digital, and neither sounds out of place, but one wonders why it was chosen as the first single. The dreamy trip weaves around deadpan vocals, whereas most of the rest of the tracks seem to ripple with enthusiasm and cheers. It’s a nice single, but whoever buys the record looking for cool jams is going to be startled by the bursts of energy that inhabit most of the disc.
Many folks won’t recall that groups like Duran Duran and New Order really did come from the postpunk underground in the early-’80s U.K. The guitar parts, the vocal arrangements, and the loving glam look are the bastard offspring of punk, even if a thousand emo and hardcore kids want to pretend otherwise. Bis, however, for all the shows it played with Bikini Kill and singles it releases on uber-cool indie K Records, gets the joke and pays homage to the Durans on “Eurodisco.” The vocals rise over a propulsive beat and synths straight out of a Flock of Seagulls: “The party’s at its end/A style is named and it’s dead/There is no latest trend/I eat just what I’m fed….” Bis takes one of the most recognizably stylized and utterly vapid forms of music (’80s synth-pop) and successfully adds meaning to the experience. It’s not nostalgia either, because Sci Fi, Disco, and Rin don’t just complain about the lack of new trends while pining for the old; they invent new updates on old styles that have room to grow even beyond what they’ve done this time around.
Bis plays the 9:30 Club Friday, Sept. 24 with Madder Rose, Discount, and Thin Lizard Dawn.