The Human League Vs. Ladytron, Or, How Modern Pop Became Postmodern

In many ways, early British electronic music was a response to a postwar Europe, particularly postwar England, which had become blighted with dystopian, Ballardian urban landscapes. The music’s glacial remoteness merely reflected back the sense of alienation wrought by depressing scenes of ominous tower blocks and rotting factories. Sheffield, with its menacing steel plants, was a particularly effective incubator for just such a new kind of industrial-age sound.

Seminal Sheffield synth act The Human League released two early albums that perfectly captured that sense of isolation and proximity to clanking machinery. They sold, but not all that much. Aspirational and frustrated, singer Phil Oakey jettisoned the more solemn half of the band (they would go on to become Heaven 17), brought in two foxy young scenester girls, and shortly after scored one of the biggest-ever worldwide hits in the form of “Don’t You Want Me Baby.” Legendary journalist Paul Morley quickly branded it as “New Pop”: futuristic, optimistic, and unashamedly ambitious. Their chart success would continue on through the 1980’s.

Author Simon Reynolds had written extensively on the exhilarating modernism of nascent Human League in his 2007 book Rip It Up And Start Again. But in his latest tome, Retromania, he argues that all culture now is simply repetition and pastiche. In other words, postmodernism has replaced modernism.

Indeed, a generation later, Ladytron emerged from another blighted Northern city, Liverpool, as a near-perfect revival of the League’s ethos. Also composed of equal measures male and female chromosomes, they were fearsomely sexy while also eliciting a sort of cold, Mitteleuropa detachment. They played icy, Teutonic synth pop but with massive hooks, and their lyrics were decidedly melancholy, but never actually bleak.

Ladytron perfectly captured that moment when modernism edged into postmodernism. They dressed a bit like Kraftwerk, they sounded not unlike Human League or Visage, and they even managed to re-contextualize pre-Millennial ennui for the post-Millennium. They were…”Renew” Pop.

Fitting, then, that The Human League and Ladytron, their most perfectly realized progeny, both have new releases arriving as summer turns to fall, almost as if to qualify Reynolds’ entire thesis.

The latter’s new and very modern-titled album, Gravity the Seducer (to be released on Nettwerk September 12), finds Ladytron returning to their electro-pop essence after various flirtations with psychedelia and other such diversions. It’s Ladytron doing Ladytron, and it’s a glorious triumph of style and aesthetics. Indeed, “White Gold” is like the soundtrack to trains speeding across unnamed stretches of European desolation, and “Moon Palace” tells of a “postcard from a distant dream” over the type of beautifully eerie soundscape once the province of Ultravox and Gary Numan. Surely Numan would kill to have written the ethereally haunting “Transparent Days.” Gravity is possibly the most fearless and fully realized album of Ladytron’s career.

The League’s newest on Wall Of Sound (digital release this week, physical 8/23), Credo, is just what the title says it is: a manifesto of glossy, mod pop music to soundtrack these glossy, high-tech times. “Night People” and “Privilege” are both muscular, almost militaristic electro stormers, while the thumping “Single Minded” is a throwback to the unique Human League ability to sound blithe and ominous at the same time.

Better still, “Sky” and the Giorgio Moroder-esque “Electric Shock” are absolutely perfect modernistic pop songs, and in a way sound like Human League doing Ladytron doing Human League.

On Credo’s closing track, “When The Stars Start To Shine”, the League implores the listener optimistically to, “Hold your head up / We see a new horizon”. One guesses they get the irony.

Photo by Spiros Politis

Christina Aguilera to Dupe Hipsters with Santigold, M.I.A. Collaborations

Previously: Le Tigre! Sia! Goldfrapp! Ladytron! And now Christina Aguilera, like a ventriloquist, has managed to stay tight-lipped while intimating how she’s also collaborated with Santigold and M.I.A.. But specific details about the Best Album Ever otherwise remain cloudy. We don’t even have a release date, although a viral should be forthcoming — it usually is.

Adds Aguilera, “I know I can’t let too much out the bag too soon. I think I’m most proud of this work than I’ve ever been, just because I worked with so many amazing and incredibly talented people.” Despite being spoiled for collaborators, Aguilera singles out Sia, saying, “I think we really created some super crazy magic together.”

But while Aguilera rides the coat-tails of such talent to the highest tier of indie street cred, perhaps a sizable number of us will continue to ape for the good old days. And the rest of us will wait patiently to see how badly Aguilera manages to dupe the Pitchfork set into thinking that there might be any palpable difference between this new album and this Goldfrappish gem featured on her greatest hits collection.

Links: Joaquin Phoenix’s Project, Angelina Jolie vs. Octo-Mom, Trent Reznor vs. Britney Spears

● If you encounter Joaquin Phoenix (who’s in his Andy Kauffman stage right now) he will ask you to sign a film release, because his brother-in-law Casey Affleck and film crew are documenting his demise/art project wherever he goes. [DailyNews] ● Drew Barrymore is either playing the field or just very friendly. Barrymore, who was linked to Jason Segal, was seen greeting Hugh Grant with a full on make-out session. Well, Hugh is European. [P6] ● According to sources, even Angelina Jolie is creeped out by octo-mom Nadya Suleman’s obsession with Jolie. [LATBlog]

● The Jonas Brothers do Letterman’s Top Ten List; their purity remains intact while doing so. [Youtube] ● Christina Aguilera is reportedly collaborating with Ladytron for her new album, as she wants a softer sound. [MyParkMag] ● Trent Reznor has said it’s been a “treat” rehearsing next to Britney Spears for their mutual tours; not understanding Reznor’s sarcasm, Spears’ manager suggests he should remix “Circus” for her. [DigitalSpy]

Music Reviews: June/July 2008

Joan as Police Woman To Survive (Reveal Records)

Even if you haven’t heard Joan “As Police Woman” Wasser, chances are you have listened to records she’s appeared on. On her spare second solo album, her many former colleagues and influences are present, particularly Antony and the Johnsons. But this is her record and it is Wasser’s lone, tender voice that cossets tracks such as the wrenching title song, “To Be Loved,” and its emotional doppelganger, “To Be Lonely.” Recalling the more rueful sides of Feist, Roberta Flack, and a smidgen of Cat Power, To Survive is not an album for the noonday sun. But, oh, night never felt so sweet. —Alison Powell

Martha Wainwright I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too (Zoe/Rounder Records)

On Martha Wainwright’s second solo album, the singer-songwriter claims her own plot of land free from the tree cover of her legendary folkways family. The 12 originals here move with seamless grace, from the anguished cry of “So Many Friends” to the touching confessional of “Niger River.” Lip-licking covers of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” and the Eurythmics’ “Love is a Stranger” show Wainwright to be fluent in all of pop’s dialects. —A.P. Esperanza Spalding Esperanza (Heads Up)

Like a mash-up of Weather Report and Brazil ’66, Esperanza is a fascinating debut for the 23-year-old bassist/composer/singer who, at 16, was the storied Berklee School of Music’s youngest professor. Backed by such notables as former Biggie Smalls mentor, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Ms. Spalding belts out multi-octave Samba, free-form, trad, and scat in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, while power-playing basslines that occasionally channel Jaco Pastorius’s signature elephant bellow. A gorgeously sophisticated inclusion to anyone’s summer soundtrack. Hot cool. —Anita Sarko

Adele 19 (Columbia/XL)

This barely-legal Londoner has been called the anti-wino antidote to Amy Winehouse. True, she’s got the jazzy, elastic, “I can’t believe she’s not black!” voice and dusty-grooved Mark Ronson production. But Adele’s talent transcends easy comparisons. Shifting effortlessly from the neo-soul troubadour confessional “Daydreamer” to the positively soaring piano anthem “Hometown Glory” (a cousin of sorts to Sia’s “Breathe Me”), her passionate virtuosity simply proves stunning. —Matt Diehl

Fleet Foxes Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

These Pacific Northwest indie rockers appear beamed in from Pitchfork-hipster central casting. Devendra Banhart/Grizzly Bear neo-folk vibe? Check. Rootsy psychedelia evoking Band of Horses and (especially) My Morning Jacket? Indeed. But Fleet Foxes replace Banhart’s off-putting oddness with spookily ethereal beauty. And, like Radiohead, they know how to transform a song into their own image, making wildly unconventional, expansive arrangements catchy like the hookiest pop. —M.D.

Coldplay Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (Capitol)

Coldplay follows U2’s example rather closely, down to having Brian Eno co-produce their fourth album; the results, however, prove far better than that. The Brit superstars’ latest could very well be their Unforgettable Fire—like that classic, it both expands Coldplay’s original vision while rendering it more miniature and immediate. The anthemic edge remains, yet with added nuance: the big moments get more parsed out, and leavened with sonic experimentation. The songs still prove epic and symphonic, just played by a more avant-garde symphony. —M.D.

Ladytron Velocifero (Nettwerk)

Yoking together seductive, poisonous vocals and seismic synth arrangements, Ladytron’s most affecting tracks—“Ghosts” and the hip-hop- infused “Predict the Day”—drip with the promise of raunchy bathroom sex. Polyglot Mira Aroyo shines on “Kletva,” a Bulgarian call to ears. Unlike most cloistered dance tracks, Velocifero’s tunes combine aloof electronic experimentation with aural viscera. Each welcome crescendo in each perfectly honed song rises with lascivious energy towards an earth-shattering, glass-cracking, sea-parting climax. Anyone got a light? —Nick Haramis