Music’s sounding pretty That ‘80s Show these days, and who can blame it? In a culture better at amassing information than knowing how it feels about it, Radiohead’s overwhelmed ambivalence is about the only new emotion music can come up with, and that ain’t much fun. So acts still looking to show us a good time reach back to the spiky innocence and irony-free earnestness of that ’80s sound—which makes sense now that we’ve got an ’80s-style recession to deal with. Dance producers from Daft Punk to Felix Da Housecat to Luke Slater record straight-up new wave records, while neo-electro bands like Adult. and Soviet justify their Members Only jackets and skinny ties by inviting/relying on O.M.D. and Flying Lizards comparisons.
But only Kenna taps into just why we need to play dress-up with ’80s kitsch in the first place: We’re fucked, but at least we know where we stand. On New Sacred Cow, the Ethiopian-born, Cleveland-bred, Virginia Beach-based brother from another record collection writes songs about running away even though there’s nowhere to go. He soars on wings of Kajagoo-gooey synth-pop and Joshua Tree pomp, but he’s really singing the heart-on-your-sleeve, straight-queen blues of Soft Cell or This Mortal Coil. He’s a “Man Fading,” “Vexed and Glorious,” waging a “War in Me,” struggling with a “Love Hate Sensation” with full-lunged, slightly bruised choruses.
There’s a groundedness to New Sacred Cow, partly thanks to the lo-fi, beat-savvy production of Chad Hugo of the skater-bling Neptunes. But more poignantly, it’s because Kenna taps into that most ’80s feeling of all, the vulnerability that prompts the music to take solace in cushy escapist choruses. “Freetime” turns ennui into an embarrassingly good sing-along in three acts: “I need the freetime . . . to get away . . . from you-hoo-hoo/I need to run away . . . tonight,” Kenna sings over a herky-jerky Tones on Tail beat. “Run, run, run . . . where do you go to be free?” It’s up there with the best candy-colored ’80s blues: Altered Images’ “I Could Be Happy” (“run away . . . “), even A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” (“I ran so far away . . . “). It’s the rush of escape, see, not necessarily the destination, that passes for resolution.