The Soft Boys

Whether couched in aesthete foppery, geek DIY-ism, or mousse-and-eyeliner genderfuck, synth pop has never been a particularly masculine preserve. Tim Benton, lead singer of London trio Baxendale, understands and even cherishes the genre's inescapable feyness; not for nothing does his band's first album, You Will Have Your Revenge, open with an unapologetic meta-anthem called "Music for Girls."

As canned piano chords swell, Benton sets the scene: It's '91, and he's trampolining on his bed while his favorite record plays (possible culprits, on available evidence: Kylie Minogue's "Better the Devil You Know," Pet Shop Boys' "So Hard," something by Black Box or the KLF), when his killjoy older brother interrupts: "Well if this is really music/I wouldn't want it in my world/Well if this is really music/This is music for girls." Brutishly simple beats kick in, then primary-color keyboard shimmers; playground chants give way to a love triangle involving a boy, a girl, and a drum machine. When Benton yelps, "I'll break your legs if you stop me dancing," the threat of physical violence is unconvincing; but when he sniffs, "Keep your bittersweet symphonies," there's a good deal more conviction and authority to the jab than when Travis ask what's a wonderwall anyway.

Baxendale's shiny robopop is premised on visceral hookiness and a cartoon affect pliant enough to accommodate sincere wonderment and bratty disdain. (Benton shuns electropop's trademark deadpan, favoring the ripe overenunciation of Britpop dandies like Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon.) As the album title suggests, there's an underlying nerd-strikes-back motif, but Benton's songs are mainly about the music he loves or the girl he loves—or often both, since his dancing queen more than likely caught his eye at the local discotheque and now appears to him eternally dusted with glitter and illuminated by strobes.

Baxendale ( = Black Box + Black Box Recorder?)
photo: Jane Thompson
Baxendale ( = Black Box + Black Box Recorder?)

As with Bis, another two-guys-and-a-girl neodisco ensemble, strident juvenilia is part of the game. ("Neato" stages hormonal stirrings at a Nintendo console; on "The Future," co-vocalist Senay Sargut expresses Luddite anxiety in the most basic terms: "You're going strolling down the Internet/I haven't got to grips with PacMan yet.") Benton's a pop purist who strives for the high-water marks of the Euro/teen schools, minus monster overproduction and all-purpose clichés (he lacks the means and the stomach). His own formulation is Aqua doing Belle and Sebastian, which isn't off by much, given the emphasis on adolescent confusion and embarrassment, never mind that the bluntness of the phrasing would make Stuart Murdoch blanch.

Every time the tenaciously high bounce factor closes in on fatigue, Benton throws in a boldly conceptual party trick. "I Love the Sound of Dance Music" (pronounced, crucially, "daa-ahnce") is a 10-minute history of electronica, flavored with the moods of vintage disco—alternately wistful and euphoric, anticipatory and resigned, with a couple of neat tempo changes, plus a spoken Pulp-style midsong anecdote about late-'80s house. The disco drama turns positively operatic on the bitter post-breakup freak-out "Battery Acid": Tim, having ingested the titular substance ("I'll be the guy recharging his life"), is giving off a scary "illuminous" glow when he suddenly keels over, and the song, like an inferior bunny in some Energizer commercial, slows and sputters to a dead halt . . . just so the beat, a resuscitating kiss, can bring him back.

Baxendale's Le Grand Magistery labelmates Stars are a cool glass of crème de menthe next to those Brits' spiked Mountain Dew. These Canadians (Toronto-bred, now Montreal-based after a stint in Brooklyn) are true-blue electro-sophisticates, and their singer even has a smoking-jacket name to prove it: Torquil Campbell, who contributes whispered vocals to match his dreamy, imagistic phrases, was a child actor and still has a semi-glamorous sideline going (a lead role in minor Off-Broadway sensation Shopping and Fucking, TV guest spots including one on Sex and the City). Campbell's boyhood friend Chris Seligman, the other half of this Tennant/Lowe setup, is responsible for the subdued/ornate sonic aspect of Stars' self-proclaimed "soft revolution." Stubbornly genteel and evidently unafraid of ridicule, they've co-opted as their manifesto Baudelaire's luxe, calme et volupté(which also inspired Matisse, for what it's worth).

Their debut album, Nightsongs, opens by putting the quote in context (a female voice recites a stanza from "L'Invitation au Voyage"); the first song, "Counting Stars on the Ceiling," proves they're as unfashionable as they are arty, invoking mopey '80s Scots the Blue Nile, from the sparse arrangements (tasteful Linn drums replaced by a polite lounge-jungle shuffle) to the fragmentary, rain-drenched portrait of metaphysical solitude ("I was alone/I fell in love/with that feeling").

The mode is languid, melodic, Anglophilic pastiche (think Prefab Sprout with a few tricks copped from the Saint Etienne playbook, or a distracted Luke Haines communing with a slumming Martin Fry). The songs are sometimes content to pass for benign mood music, except the moods in question tend to be either too specific or too naggingly cryptic for wallpaper. "Going Going Gone" combines a hypnotic cardiogram pulse with a sense of benumbed dread ("killing time with gin and lime"). "Write What You Know" sifts through the wreckage of an art/commerce smashup, stopping just short of righteousness. "My Radio" fantasizes an escape from a land of "pale reactor light" and "chemo air." And on, of all things, a cover of "This Charming Man," they exemplify luxe, calme et volupté to a tee, reimagining Morrissey's theatrical gloom as blasé superiority, cushioning the indelible Marr riff in layers of ska-powdered chiffon. Staring down a sacred cow with supreme equanimity, they simply set it adrift on memory bliss.

 
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