The Prima Donnas’ Drugs Sex & Discotheques opens with the magenta whirl of something that gets broadly referred to, in pop terms, as the ’80s. Songs like “Nance Music Manifesto” and “Reagan’s Dead” copy records from those jumpy years after the officially drowsy 1970s finally expired, when U.S. and British new wave bands leapt to revoice with limp-wristed synthesizers punk’s previously concrete-strength guitar structures. Even today—after wildly more ink has been spilled on post-punk than has ever been addressed to, say, Duane Eddy’s guitar playing or Linda Ronstadt’s singing—nobody exactly knows why a form as limited and unforgiving as political-minded guitar punk evolved into something as open-ended and commercial as new wave. But it happened, definitely. And for the Prima Donnas, whose sequence retraces new wave’s relatively quick steps out of stark synth-punk into club frolic (“[Dancin’ in the] Freaky Zone”) and programmed singer-songwriter narratives (“Headful of Pills”) and fashiony psychedelia (“Stoned, Like a White Balloon”) and points beyond, all new wave manifestations exist as material for snotty razor-sharp reproductions.
And yuks. The Prima Donnas, three alleged Englishmen from Sussex who deliver lines like “Oh oh oh oh mascara/Oh oh oh oh Riviera” in a synth-driven gloomfest entitled “Fall Fashion,” are based—improbably, they beg you to say—in Austin, Texas; their bio refers to a show “opening for George Strait in the Houston Astrodome.” Owners of Drugs Sex & Discotheques are treated to CD package notes that recount the band’s history (“Over the years, the Prima Donnas’ talents were honed playing the church circuit of Southern England”), illuminate discographical matters (“A band favourite since their earliest days back at the orphanage,” one learns about “Reagan’s Dead”), and reprint an interview with lead singer Otto Matik, who explains that the Prima Donnas met at “Buckingham Palace, believe it or not, at a chili cook-off sponsored by the Dallas Cowboys.”
You wouldn’t want to make more than they are of the Prima Donnas’ funny little London/Lubbock insider’s project and their often snappy songs; for people who get the context and jokes, both work, as swiftly as when Robert Christgau, writing about an early and apparently awful Eurodisco album, christened it “the perfect punk-rock ashtray.” But for the sake of argument, let’s pursue them anyway, because ultimately everything here is dependent on, tediously, the same old story: You know the one, where the arrival of punk is a matter of Supreme Cultural Significance that heroically reveals Duane Eddy’s guitar playing or Linda Ronstadt’s singing as the sonic emblems of inconsequence they always were, and its decadent descent into new wave amounts to nothing more than a 20-year-old continuous tape loop of Haircut 100. These truisms have little to do with how the extramusical raw energy and reinventive spirit of new wave actually spawned a million forms, from hip-hop to dance-directed hits to even slightly but significantly rejiggered guitar bands. But as the Prima Donnas prove, the moldy older view remains a beloved canard, as dearly preserved as mint Slits vinyl encased in heavy plastic protection.
Which is one reason Danse Macabre, the third album by the Faint, a currently much buzzed-about synth-rock quintet from Omaha, Nebraska, seems fresh—”a phenomenon,” as a super-clued-in friend of mine has described them, and not just because they recently snagged the opening slot of the No Doubt tour. For these former indie guitar rockers, synthesizers appear not as part of the famously evil plot to destroy or trivialize rock. Instead, they’re just unavoidably present, like 1993’s computers or your dad’s interesting old electric shaver—something to pick up, investigate, not quite toss out. Synthesizers are glue, in the Faint’s music, but they’re also agents of unglue, and this attitude makes the band’s blankly passionate deployment of them intriguing: Where Thomas Dolby, the great lost ’80s synth-popper, always strove to make explicit the ironic relationship between the romantic inclinations of pop songs and the quasi-scientific means of post-punk pop production, the Faint bother with no such connection; the sound they make on Danse Macabre is indeed often stressed and eerie. But more than anything else, it’s just boldly there, putting itself together and taking itself apart, no-program as program.
Songs address the cults of work and “pretty little homes” (“Agenda Suicide”), social roles and restaurants (“Total Job”), accidents and strategies and events (“Your Retro Career Melted”), and, as the music brilliantly expresses, the way none of these things will quite congeal beyond a certain thrilling or hateful sensory rush. Clearly, everyday life rattles the Faint. In “Let the Poison Spill From Your Throat”—the showpiece on Danse Macabre, where they answer the question “Could Depeche Mode ever really rock out?”—singer Todd Baechle puts their overall point of view succinctly: “Tell them they lie,” he blares, fearless of sounding a little like Robert Smith, “Just tell them the truth/The things you won’t take are coming in groups.” On “The Conductor,” in a dazzling stretch of way-roughed-up dance music that dissolves into a bravura sing-along chorus, they touch on the power that resides in artistic endeavor. The music is not cheesy or ironic or particularly antique; it’s something so unusual that it only faintly registers these days: new. Danse Macabre, far beyond its synthesizers or Midwest Anglophilia, has a difficult but definite weird life to it; if the Faint build on this breakthrough, they could end up at the level of Duane Eddy’s guitar playing or Linda Ronstadt’s singing. No joke.
Saddle Creek, saddle-creek.com