For the adepts of the hybrid known as club pop, the trick is to integrate digital innovations while somehow holding on to human virtues like humor, imagination, and warmth–not to mention sex that involves actual physical contact. Taking easy listening, ’60s pop-symphonics, bossa nova, and Latin rhythms, acts such as Arling & Cameron, le hammond inferno, and Fantastic Plastic Machine shuffle them around with the latest drum ‘n’ bass and breakbeats, making computers and live instruments coexist. Club pop may constantly refer to various musical traditions, but its vision is neither futuristic nor nostalgic, opting instead for a livability infinitely more appealing than the mathematics of a Photek or Pan Sonic.
Club-poppers don’t knock you over the head with portentous lyrics: they tend to cruise the sunny side of the avenue rather than badly lit side alleys. This music is light and joyful, but certainly not dumb–witness the importance of elaborate concept albums like Arling & Cameron’s Sound Shopping (Basta), a collaboration with Dutch artist and graphic designer Joost Swarte, or Yoshinori Sunahara’s Take Off and Landing (Bungalow), which purports to be about the airport of the future.
Sunahara uses the airport as an obvious metaphor for the international cross-pollination that’s at the heart of club pop. The trend was synthesized by the Berlin-based Bungalow label with 1996’s Sushi 3003, subtitled ”A Spectacular Collection of Japanese Clubpop”; a follow-up, Sushi 4004, just came out domestically. Ro 3003, an answer to the Sushi collections, proved that the Germans, too, could shake their booty and have a good laugh at the same time. Other essential compilations include Suite 98, Speilkreis 03, Music To Watch Comets By (curated by the lymphatic Gentle People, for whom easy listening is probably still too harsh), and The Best of Easy Tune (Drive-In), which collects EPs by acts such as Easy Aloha’s, Intuners, Ennio Basta, or Gay Fantasy Express, but where the credits reveal the ubiquitous presence of Amsterdam producers Gerry Arling and Richard Cameron. And of course everybody shows up on everybody’s records: Berlin’s Stereo Total write songs for Paris-by-way-of-Tokyo Kahimi Karie, Japan’s Jenka records for Sweden’s Vibrafon label, Berlin’s le hammond inferno remix Japan’s 5th Garden and Fantastic Plastic Machine. With club pop, teamwork is of the essence, and everything is in constant flux: songs (remixes not only proliferate on white label EPs but are tacked on at the end of albums), bands (one person or several, a designed vocalist or a succession of guests), and even identities (people often sing in languages other than their own).
Los Angeles’s April March is among the few Americans who’ve endorsed the club pop ethos, working with collaborators as diverse as garage band the Makers and French producer-arranger Bertrand Burgalat. Nicklebag signee March dares sing in a language other than her own–a familiar experience (predicament?) for many Europeans and Japanese, who grew up listening to Françoise Hardy singing in German or Petula Clark singing in Italian. Being unilingual is most definitely not cool anymore.
Another stumbling block for Americans might be the role played by visuals in club pop. Sunahara thanks various airlines on his CD’s sleeve, and one has the distinct feeling that the sole criteria for their selection was how good their logo looked. Similarly, the bright pink spine of the Gentle People’s Soundtracks for Living (Rephlex) defiantly sticks out amid a sea of drab black and grey jewel boxes. On their only album, released in ’86 and just reissued by Le Village Vert, the seminal French duo Mikado matched sophisticated aesthetics (artwork by Pierre et Gilles) and faux-naïf sounds. The single ”Naufrage en hiver,” a cult hit at the time, remains a classic of understated techno-pop seduction; typically, the B-side was titled ”L’exotisme.” On her eponymous 1997 album (March Records) French actress/singer Valérie Lemercier brilliantly went from proud disco romps to retro-’60s yé-yé pastiches, while the artwork portrayed her holding a trumpet against eye-popping pinks, greens, and golds.
Like exotic fish that turn brighter to attract prospective mates, club popsters use visuals to evoke a fairly old-fashioned idea of seduction. Sex in these songs is back to being playful rather than forceful, mysterious rather than obvious, arousing rather than thrusting. The best acts know that irony is fun up to a point, after which it becomes a total mood-killer. Arling & Cameron’s ”Voulez-Vous?” and The Lorraine Bowen Experience’s ”Julie Christie” are the best boudoir songs heard in a while: they pull off the feat of being both tongue-in-cheek and utterly, madly, feverishly sexy. Fantastic Plastic Machine’s update of Joe Jackson’s ”Steppin’ Out” is light on its feet and suggestive.
Unlike disco divas, club pop singers, men and women alike, are miniaturists for whom showing off is tasteless overkill. Which is fine, since the tracks often are delirious, over-the-top extravaganzas. Fat bass lines, synth flourishes, rococo horns, and ultra-crisp production values come together in shamelessly catchy ways to make you sing along and dance and swoon. Why even think about the future or the past when the present’s so much fun?
Fantastic Plastic Machine play Windows on the World October 7; Kahimi Karie is at Fez with Momus October 13, 14, 16, and 17.