Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Feel Love...and Pain: Hercules & Love Affair

Tracks from American disco-electro outfit Hercules & Love Affair have been snaking their way around the blogosphere for the last couple of months, but their self-titled album was only just officially released this week in the UK and will be released March 25 in North America. Comprised of DJ Andy Butler, Kim Ann Foxman, Nomi, and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons fame, Hercules & Love Affair is one of the latest in the DFA stable of artists. The project's name supposedly references the myth of Hercules and his futile search for his boy lover, Hylas, who had been seduced and taken by river nymphs. This interesting connection to Greek mythology can't help but be appropriate for a group which defies gender and sexuality categories, including Foxman, an androgynous lesbian, Nomi, a transsexual, and Hegarty, who has expressed interest in gender-reassignment surgery. Disco, a subculture that allowed freedom for and celebration of minorities in the 70's, is a perfect genre for this particular group to contribute to.

I've personally never been a fan of Hegarty's voice - yes, I know he won a Mercury Prize, but his voice was so warbly it drove me crazy if I listened to it too long. Oddly enough, his voice in this newer context of electro beats and disco drums, instead of the usual piano-backing, works quite well. In fact, the idiosyncracies of his signature tortured, vibrato-laden voice add to the soulfulness of this re-working of the disco genre. Lead-off single Blind has a fantastic bassline pulsating beneath Hegarty's distinctive divaesque warble. In my opinion, without Hegarty's vocals on this track, it wouldn't have had the same power and originality. While it pumps along with its powerful bassline and conga drum backing, its lyrics relate a bittersweet story of someone looking back at his/her life and realizing s/he is now alone. Musically, the later track Raise Me Up follows along the same lines as Blind. Two other Hegarty tracks, album beginner Time Will, a sorrowful song in which Hegarty "cannot be half a wife, cannot hold half a life," and Easy, another slow track with his voice brought into a low, sinister register, are decidedly more reined in than songs like Blind and Raise Me Up.

Of course Hegarty isn't the only vocalist on this project, and several of the tracks feature Foxman and Nomi in breathy vocals which sometimes recall Prince and sometimes recall the lead singer of Dragonette. Hercules Theme, which is one such track featuring Foxman and Nomi, struts along like Parliament with a catchy horn refrain while their smooth vocals roll along over top of it. This is My Love, another track without Hegarty, sounds like it could be a Hot Chip song with its lilting vocals, disco shimmer and trumpet noodlings. On tracks like You Belong, Foxman, Nomi and Hegarty all complement each other, Hegarty providing a strong, distinctive backdrop for lead vocals and a contrasting movement for the lead vocal to melt into during the chorus.

As an album, Hercules & Love Affair is both straightforward and complex. It's straightforward in its use of danceable disco beats and retro basslines, but it fuses this genre with early house music and electro in an act of contemporization. Its mood is also deceptively celebratory in its uptempo dance anthems, but at the same time, an undercurrent of sadness and loss flows beneath them like a River Styx, which occasionally gushes up and saturates the slower, darker songs. With the more laidback, brooding songs like Time Will, Easy, and Iris, you can sometimes forget that this is supposed to be a disco record. They're still very well-crafted songs, but they are also evidence that the singles leaked thus far (Blind, Hercules Theme, Athene, and b-side Roar) aren't exactly representative of the album as a whole. What's a love affair without a little grief, though?

Blind - Hercules & Love Affair

Hercules Theme - Hercules & Love Affair

Easy - Hercules & Love Affair