I don’t like crowds. As a rule I stay away from music festivals and huge concerts whenever I can — anything where the odds are high of getting stuck in a long conga line of cars inching their way out of a parking lot, or where there’s a lawn covered with blankets between me and the nearest restroom. I go to a lot of shows by myself, too — I don’t know why, I’m a loser that way I guess, though sometimes it’s nice just to be alone in a crowd with my thoughts between sets. So it’s rare that I go to a show at Shoreline Amphitheater, but in 2008 I had the chance to see not only Jesus and Mary Chain but also Gang of Four. How could I miss that?
I think I probably also was aware of a couple other bands, but I’m not sure. Maybe that was where I first heard M83. It was almost certainly where I first heard and fell in love with Cut Copy.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the lineup was designed to sound so 80s. J&MC and Gang of Four weren’t obscure by any means, but there are probably people reading this essay who don’t know more than one song by each of them. I never heard either of them on the radio. Point being, you need more than a casual interest in 80s music to come out to the Shoreline to see them, meaning the bands supporting them ought to at least complement their aesthetic. But it’s really uncanny how effortlessly both M83 and Cut Copy manage to sound like the 80s you swear you remember, but which never actually sounded quite like that. “Uncanny” is often used to refer to something that reminds you of the familiar but is, if you look closely, not that familiar thing at all but something strange and new. Usually it’s an unsettling effect; here it’s simply glorious. At least on these two albums, it’s like they took all the best moments on all the best records, the ones that always made you shiver with pleasure and wish they could be repeated forever, and repeated those moments forever.
Of the two albums, In Ghost Colours is a little more consistent and successful, and also a little bit less nakedly nostalgic, though it is the one with a song (“Lights and Music”) which sounds as though it’s directly sampling Madonna’s “Physical Attraction.”
Finding the antecedents to other songs is more difficult. They share a mood with mid-80s New Order and OMD, but there’s more guitar, fewer electronics. The vocals occasionally sound a bit like Tom Bailey from Thompson Twins, but less yelpy. The songs have a bit more of an edge, and more of a dance music structure, than anything I remember from my childhood, but there’s the same optimism, the same “don’t worry about anything” vibe that we all got from a lot of the pop we grew up with. We were kids; if we were lucky enough to grow up in the middle class, we didn’t really have to worry about all the economic bullshit our parents were having to deal with. We had breakfast cereals, awesome toys, Saturday morning cartoons…life was good. Cut Copy can take us back there even as adults.
Their first album, Bright Like Neon Love, was more of a prototype for this one. It didn’t have anything as carefree as “Feel the Love” (which effortlessly renders Daft Punk obsolete), as insistently romantic as “Hearts on Fire,” as rapturous as “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found,” as yearning as “Far Away,” as all-out sublime (or as prone to unfortunate mondegreens) as “So Haunted.” In Ghost Colours is ecstasy, start to finish. Its best songs are all aiming to be “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and their aim is pretty true.
Their next album, Zonoscope, changed direction a bit, swapping in some percussion for electronics, and while the songs themselves aren’t as immediate, the album has really grown on me. “Need You Now,” “Take Me Over,” and “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat” are themselves uncanny takes on the highlights of In Ghost Colours, and the new direction is exemplified by the excellent “Pharaohs and Pyramids” (which sounds amazing over the Exploratorium gift shop’s sound system, incidentally) and “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution.” I’m not yet a fan of their latest, Free Your Mind, which in sound and eye-searingly vibrant cover design seems to be aiming for early 90s rave culture and albums like The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. It’s a logical place for them to head, but the songs haven’t grabbed me yet. Given how much I love their other albums, though, I’ll keep giving this one chances.
Gang of Four were great too, I guess. As for Jesus and Mary Chain, well, they sounded fine, but by the end of the show I was getting cold (it had started mid-afternoon and I hadn’t expected to need a jacket) and I was worried about getting out ahead of the crowds, so I went out to my car before the set was over and heard the last of it with the window rolled down. I mean, yeah, I’d come for the nostalgia, but I left with something better. Sometimes sitting through these festivals really pays off: if I’d blinked, I would have missed the revolution.
M83, Saturdays = Youth
An unbelievably beautiful love letter to a time M83’s creative force, Anthony Gonzalez, is surely too young to remember firsthand. Most likely it’s filtered at least a little through the John Hughes films his cover models are dressed as extras from, as well as more recent goth-tinged uncanny period pieces like Donnie Darko. But the sounds are right, and the mournful mood seems legit, and so songs like “Graveyard Girl,” “We Own the Sky,” and the utterly perfect “Kim and Jessie” are the treasures they’re supposed to be. Elsewhere, the record seems more concerned with instrumental mood pieces, which are beautiful but a bit less satisfying, culminating in the 11-minute Twin Peaksy “Midnight Souls Still Remain.”
Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak
The only Kanye record I own on CD, for the simple and damning reason that it’s the only one I like. Not that I don’t recognize his talent, but I typically don’t find the circus of his ego as engrossing as the mirror maze of his insecurities. It doesn’t hurt that he, like so many other acts in 2008, was channeling the 80s here, with his stunning Factory Records-like album art and, you know, all the 808s. I love it from start to finish, especially “Welcome to Heartbreak,” “Heartless,” “Love Lockdown,” “Paranoid,” “Robocop,” and the Tears for Fears near-cover “Coldest Winter.”
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
Would you believe that this is the album that made me appreciate Graceland, rather than the other way around? I’ll be talking more about these guys in a couple of entries’ time, but I was so struck by the joy of this particular record that I started casting around for other albums that sounded half as appealing rather than play this one to death. Vampire Weekend were the mood I wanted to be in all the time, and songs like “Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “M79,” “Campus,” and “Walcott” were the reasons why.
- Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree
- Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers
- Lady Gaga, The Fame
- Bloc Party, Intimacy
- Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping