By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
By Hilary Hughes
By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
San Francisco finally has a genuine dance radio station, one of about five in America, and it would make most "superstar" DJs puke. It offers no extended mixes, no tribal trax, no progressive house dubs, breakbeat instrumentals, or underground designer record labels. No cognoscenti chic whatsoever. Instead, 92.7 Party pumps up the trance-popcrate-loads of breathy Euro babes chirping English-as-a-second-language love lyrics while fizzy synth hooks buzz and zap angst-riddled chords to a bouncy mechanical beat. It hit the Bay Area airwaves at exactly the same time DJ Sammy's squirrelly girlie remake of Bryan Adams's "Heaven" came out of nowhere (well, Spain to be exact) to share radio time with Nickelback and Creed in an obvious conspiracy to wear out the public's trance-pop tolerance while offering flimsy shadows of its delights. It's the Nicki French effect: Remember when this one-hit wonder's 1995 hi-NRG remake of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" inexplicably topped the American singles chart, back when poor Kylie Minogue couldn't even get a U.S. recording contract? Nearly anything faster than a hip-hop shuffle that manages to get past commercial radio's discophobic gatekeepers goes on to embed itself Cher-style into our pop consciousness, no matter how tacky it is. That's how starved America is for uptempo dance music.
Meanwhile, in England, the dance aristocracy is freaking out because its beloved DJ-mixed, instrumental-dominated, club-conscious compilations aren't selling like they used to, and so-called "credible" dance singles no longer regularly reach the Top 40. The biggest overseas dance hit this year that wasn't a remix of an old Elvis track was Scooter's helium-voiced happy hardcore deconstruction of Supertramp's "The Logical Song"an awe-inspiring shrine to melancholic silliness that makes a mockery not of '70s rock, but of the deadly dull beats-plus-droning currently dominating clubland without much in the way of melodies, lyrics, or variation.
Like the big-name DJs, Germany's Scooter have for years been spinning deviations on their instantly recognizable formula. Their American best-of Pushing the Beat (Radikal) force-feeds chipmunk choruses, riffs pilfered from rave classics, inane raps, stadium-sized guitar gusto, nonsensical shout-outs to their trend-oblivious fans, and fashion statements you might imagine on Eminem's dad. In an earlier decade they would've been Slade, goofy glamsters with a hot line to hellraising dumb-rock heaven. But in the current dance climate, Scooter and cohorts like Alcazar and Lasgo epitomize Eurocheese, the dance music that's not supposed to be be good for you but nevertheless tastes better than what's hyped as aesthetically nutritious.
Nearly every dance sub-subgenre is now formulaic: Each style's success depends on its ability to be easily duplicated by DJs with the standard home studio, and the differences between hits and misses seem to get slighter with each technical advance. This Xeroxability makes Eurocheese very popular in its homeland indeed. But unlike the typically plodding stuff sold as progressive house, or the Sasha and Digweed school of trance that's rapidly losing its austere identity in an effort to remain hip, Eurocheese still depends on vocals, and no current act serves up more in the vocal department than Lasgo. Exuding urgency while other Euro-warblers offer folksy sweetness, frontwoman Evi Goffin goes against the genre's smooth grain with a confrontational catch in her vocal cords that renders her every song an unfeigned plea.
Some Things (Robbins) suggests someone in this Belgian trio has been undergoing major relationship drama. The lyrics are in the simplest English, and sometimes the rhymes are too obvious. But when they're not, the album recalls the naive poetic power of those '80s freestyle classics, like Noel's "Silent Morning" or Judy Torres's "No Reason to Cry," as if the singer were simply echoing the ache of her own pained heart: "I can see it in your eyes/There is something/Something you wanna tell me." Such banalities shouldn't command attention, but the beseeching way Goffin phrases them sure does, and that edge helps toughen "Something." Not every track repeats this single's alchemy, but most come close in an unwavering assault of soft sincerity delivered desperately over hard hooks. Goffin's ability to fully inhabit uncertain love is Lasgo's only distinction, yet it's a breakthrough, and the surrounding synth stabs speak with similarly terse grace.
Alcazarare as fussy and as fabulous as Lasgo are free from affectation. This Swedish trio bares the production-songwriting stamp of Alexander Bard, whose '90s concoction Army of Lovers gave the SweMix studio gang experience that paid off with Ace of Base, Britney, Backstreet, and beyond. Like Army of Lovers, Alcazar whip up frothy wordplay: "Crying at the Discoteque" rhymes '80s dance club Danceteria with "disco spreads like a bacteria," name-drops titles by David Bowie, Dead or Alive, and Madonna, and references American Gigolo-era Richard Gereall over a deft sample of Sheila & B. Devotion's Chic-produced 1980 hit "Spacer." But unlike Bard's old group, Alcazar chirp with a giddy teen-pop blankness that downplays the wit and beefs up the trauma, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste that complements the busy arrangements' caffeine and sugar.
Although Bard and co.'s other sample choices aren't particularly imaginative or diverse ("Sexual Guarantee" rubs against Chic's "My Forbidden Lover," "Paradise" engulfs the SOS Band's "Take Your Time [Do It Right]," while "Paris in the Rain" skips across Change's "The Glow of Love"), their knack for writing harmonies and countermelodies around those classics puts brains where there would ordinarily only be bubblegum. A rush of private sorrow among a crowd of happy bodies, "Crying at the Discoteque" renders the disco experience with vivid pop-art hues, like what that demented British boy-girl group Steps might've sounded like had they been masterminded by Pet Shop Boys rather than the Svengali of teeny-house, Pete Waterman. Like Lasgo, Alcazar temper their cunning hook-craft with anguish: Nearly every track on Casino (E-Magine) celebrates "the tears in your champagne," "crying to the airport," or the "Tears of a Clone," although seven of the original album's 16 songs have been replaced on the butchered domestic release by bonus remixes that minimize Alcazar's idiosyncrasies and complications, rendering the trio nearly anonymous on their already tepid remake of the Human League's "Don't You Want Me."
But it's the addition of perky remixes to Röyksopp's moody Melody A.M. (Astral Werks) that nudges the Nordic duo in the fromage direction, and with euphoric results. Röyksopp is Norwegian for a mushroom of the poisonous, possibly hallucinogenic variety, and so their textures and rhythms flicker unpredictably with appropriate mischief, conjuring images of forbidden forests and gingerbread children. Mostly unhurried and lacking lyrics, yet far more whimsical than the chillout norm, Röyksopp pop out with the help of folksy Kings of Convenience homeboy Erlend Øye. "Poor Leno" funnels filtered layers of synthetic strings and brittle guitar as timbales ricochet across a steady bassline, Øye's serene vocal seemingly oblivious to everything pulsating around it. The so-called Someone Else's Mix of "Remind Me" evokes freakishly twee yet somehow funky '80s synth-pop stiffness, but with more mystery swirling in the background. Röyksopp connect the dots between easy listening and Euro.
But maneuvers in the continental dark aren't always so arty. Decades before America got hip to hits packages, Europe supported thousands of single-only dance acts with hundreds of TV-advertised compilations offering regional variations on overlapping track listings. The greatest American contributions to the Eurocheese comp tradition, Universal's Global Hits 2002 and Epic's Epop Version_01sample four years of frisky favorites, crossing stylistic and national borders with a catchy common currency of giddy ditties. With few exceptions, these buoyant baubles are not only too pop for the average snooty DJ, but also too bright. On the quirkier Epop, Norway's Annie morphs Madonna's club oldie "Everybody" into "The Greatest Hit," cooing the praises of her latest flame as if he were both dancefloor deity and genius of love. Germany's Rednexforgo their hillbilly techno of yore for Native American spirituality in "Spirit of the Hawk," and with kitschy but soul-stirring results. DB Boulevard's willfully optimistic "Point of View" is so well written that the bonus German-made remix can drop the verse and most of the chorus and yet remain substantial with not much more than the Italian original's idyllic bridge.
More mainstream but equally arresting, Global Hits 2002 gathers current and recent Euro breakthroughs on American airwaves with should've-been hits (and one that shouldn't have: ATC's "Around the World [La La La La La]," a tedious template for Kylie's superiorly self-reflexive "Can't Get You Out of My Head"). Ian Van Dahl's indefatigable "Castles in the Sky" climbs a mountain of quintessential Belgian pop-trance only to jump off a cliff and contemplate the folly of man while floating among fluffy synth clouds. Also from Belgium, Sylver's "Turn the Tide" seems to magically appear every time one switches on 92.7 Party, summing up the station's quintessential soundsimultaneously hyper and somnolent, brooding and buoyant. The singer pleads for redemption, a sea change. She's singing about a romantic relationship, but she might as well be singing about dance music's American commercial chances. After sinking for so many years, it's time to swim again.