There are few cultural artifacts more bereft than a major-label album that doesn’t get a push. Indie albums are never quite as sad, partially because the common (though not universal) practice of splitting profits 50-50 with the label means acts usually don’t sink into debt if they flop, but more centrally because the immediate transparency of the indie network means work of even marginal value gets exposure. Record stores (e.g., Aquarius Records) send out annotated new- arrival lists; blogs, listservs and alt weeklies like this one keep up the discourse; file sharing, Web radio and the self-sufficient network of small clubs can keep an indie act in the public consciousness if the act doesn’t mind sleeping standing up. But if you’re on a major label and MTV doesn’t pick your needle out of the haystack and Clear Channel doesn’t baptize you in Iraqi blood, the chances you’ll do the numbers UniCorp wants are zero. If you’re, say, 50 Cent, you could go direct to the street. But chances are extremely good that you are not 50 Cent. You’re Tonéx, or Lathun, or Frou Frou. And you are fucked.
Last year, Soul Hooligan, the Lo Fidelity Allstars, and Underworld all had a chance to feel that chill for themselves. How’d they do it? They made excellent dance-pop records—loaded with hooks, presented with momentum, and (except for Underworld) big on songform. There’s a killer single on each one of these albums, but they’ve all had trouble connecting at the register. Soul Hooligan and the Lo Fi’s tanked, it’s fair to say, and though Underworld’s A Hundred Days Off hasn’t done badly, it hasn’t done the Dirty Vegas numbers it deserves, not yet. As of this writing, Soul Hooligan’s Music Like Dirt had registered 4,500 pieces sold with Nielsen SoundScan, the Lo Fidelity Allstars’ Don’t Be Afraid of Love had done 13,900, and A Hundred Days Off was at 43,600. But here’s the funny thing—if you were trying, cynically, to make a hit record, you might well have told your robot to make any of these records in exactly the same way. They provide what people allegedly want (i.e., hooks, beats, etc.). Their failure in the marketplace has a chilling implication: Major labels are not concerned with selling the best, most accessible, or most pleasurable music available, but simply with selling things. You are, of course, shocked.
Soul Hooligan’s Music Like Dirt is an album from unknowns run aground on bad timing and worse choices. The single, “Algebra,” was a focus group hybrid of Gorillaz and Len, a dopey MC ruining a dub acoustica beat tied to a nice melodica hook. But throw that dead weight overboard and the album rockets up. Had it been an actual single, “Addicted” would have been one of 2002’s best. Starting with the Chemical Brothers’ re-reading of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (they called it “Setting Sun”), Soul Hooligan use three chords and a gentle synth sweep to achieve an essentially pop mind-state: being heartbroken and exalted at the same time. The vague words edge us toward, or away from, an addictive person, and either option feels right. Played entirely on guitars, it would be Interpol’s best track, or maybe even a slow Kinks cover.
The rest of the album dismantles “Addicted” and converts it into muscular dance tracks (“Start The Day,” “Turn Your Head Around,” “Psychedelic Soul”) that wager their derivative bits against dollops of unruly guitar and simple chants that both recall Can as much as anyone. “Night Owl” is a lost Fine Young Cannibals single, recasting classic soul in a shiny setting without sounding like hamfisted nostalgia. But the lame mall rap (“Algebra” and “Stoop Kid”), summed with the major-label affiliation, turned away hipsters. In a perfect world, “Addicted” would have hit car commercials before Dirty Vegas’s “Days Gone By,” and Soul Hooligan would have a down payment on their own Airstream. Instead, they’ll probably end up like the Lucy Nation (who? Ask Maverick), and you’ll be burning their CD for friends in two years.
The Lo Fidelity Allstars’ failure is more mysterious. Coming into their second album with decent U.S. exposure via the Pigeonhed remix of “Battleflag,” the Lo Fi’s had brand visibility, the bad-boy patina to conjure Oasis for those who need their England consistently coded, and an alliance with Fatboy Slim that suggested rockafella dollars in their future. And though they lost their lead singer before making Don’t Be Afraid of Love, it is unlikely anybody noticed. All dance acts flirt with, and sometime embrace, the lack of persona that dogs the genre. The Lo Fi’s ended up with no choice.
Don’t Be Afraid of Love has everything your putative critic wants: post-coital red-light fug, post-drug sprawl, post-pop references. (What’s missing? A banjo? Jim O’Rourke?) But the album got little coverage outside dance and lad mags (Mixer, URB, Stuff, Maxim) and what love it got couldn’t whip up any kind of momentum. There’s a killer faux-soul single (“Feel What I Feel”), bizarre cameos (Bootsy, Greg Dulli), and enough lovely gloom for the Morvern Callar crowd (“Just Enough”). The funk here is only passable mimicry (“Deep Ellum”) but the house sounds like the Avalanches operating, successfully, under orders to kick ass while tending to texture (“Tied to the Mast,” “Lo-Fi’s in Ibiza”). What could have been psychedelic dance-pop’s entry in the ProTools Olympics against Wilco could be its last stand. In the chilly strobe lights of Electroca$h a messy, juicy album like Don’t Be Afraid doesn’t stand a chance. Hegemony’s back—ain’t you heard? Freeze!
The band that might still escape a fate worse than Rhino is Underworld. A Hundred Days Off boils down the band’s rave soup to a thick emulsion of joy and repetition, bringing “I Feel Love” and Steve Reich together for the combination that gets mooted in criticism once a week but rarely shows up. The album moves around the fabulously functional, instantly ecstatic “Two Months Off.” Working a tense, two-chord ping-pong and one dominant lyric— “You bring light”— “Two Months Off” is the Paradise Garage revived, or at least reintroduced in a very enthusiastic way. When a conga and cowbell break enter after seven minutes, it feels awfully generous: We could have gone on forever without it. Like Autechre, a group with a very different take on physical pleasure, Underworld’s dominant move is the long fade and glacial shift from idea to idea. A Hundred Days Off moves without obstruction through extended parsings of simple ideas, tactile delight following from the quality and intensity of each sound. This is the umpteenth draft of an idea that has lost none of its power for the band. You get the feeling Underworld will be just fine when they end up on their own label some day.
There’s nothing new about corporations failing as listeners or advocates, but the speed and force of the fashion system is definitely invoking its own failure when perfectly good candy gets tossed to the side of the road. Aren’t cheap thrills supposed to be pop’s default position? Or is that just another plank in the bonfire now?