Friday, May 30, 2008

Acceptable in the '80's: M83 and Neon Neon

I was born in the early '80's, so I tend to have a vague sense of the decade, mainly via Saturday morning cartoons and toys (the fact Care Bears, My Little Ponies and Strawberry Shortcake have crept back into popular culture only confirms that I am now old enough to be considered retro). And perhaps via my older sister's penchant for heavy metal music like Motley Crue and Van Halen and the odd pop song by Cyndi Lauper or Billy Idol. Somehow I immersed myself in '80's culture through re-runs of Family Ties when I was thirteen, and via an admittedly strange obsession with Michael J. Fox (how many can boast and/or hang their heads in shame about the fact that they've seen the film High School USA?), and soon I was a rather avid listener of the '80's lunch hour on the radio. Granted, this was exposure to the Top 40 fare of the '80's, but it was a start. I was dazzled by shiny synths and the outrageous outfits sported by popstars at the time. I was fascinated with the garishness of it all. I wanted there still to be an MTV that played crazy videos no one would dare make anymore with exploding kitchens and lit-up sidewalks and public schoolboys with light shining out of their eyes.

I didn't see the ultimate John Hughes film The Breakfast Club until I was fourteen and in a ninth grade English class (I'm still not entirely certain what it was supposed to teach us about English literature). Somehow, even though it was set in the prior decade in an American high school, it resonated with me. Perhaps, it was because John Hughes managed to create a highly appealing myth about what it meant to be a teenager - where the losers always triumphed over the popular...or at the very least, joined forces for one Saturday. Eventually, I went on to see the rest of the John Hughes' Holy Trinity, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, and ended up desperately wanting a friend like Duckie. Instead, I was probably somebody's Duckie. Once I was already out of high school, I saw Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, which affected me in a similar way, making me feel nostalgic for something that never existed in the firstplace. I'll admit that if I manage to catch The Breakfast Club for the umpteenth time on TBS, I'll watch it (even if it's the badly dubbed, censored version - the bad dubbing itself is entertainment).

Tapping into the spirit of one of the most celebrated and maligned decades, are two fairly different bands with two fairly different takes on what the 80's sounded like and meant as a concept. M83, a French electronic act featuring Anthony Gonzalez, and Neon Neon, a collaborative effort between Boom Bip (real name: Bryon Hollon) and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, have both attempted to capture the spirit of the 80's in their albums Saturdays=Youth and Stainless Style, respectively. While Saturdays=Youth hearkens back to the John Hughes sentiments of being an adolescent in 1980's America, Stainless Style follows the rise and fall of John Delorean (yeah, the inventor of the Delorean, most famously used in its gullwinged glory in the Back to the Future trilogy).

I hadn't been aware of M83 until this album despite the fact they've been around since 2001. Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau created M83, named after the galaxy of the same name, in Antibes, France. Following Gonzalez's split from Fromageau, the former decided to carry on without the latter, creating both ambient music in Digital Shades Volume 1, and Saturdays=Youth, which was released on April 15 of this year. Gonzalez cites The Breakfast Club as one of the influences for this album (the Molly Ringwaldesque girl on the album cover is already a clue), but the overall effect of the album is a meeting of modern shoegaze and '80's synthpop. In addition to his own vocals, Gonzalez also enlisted vocal help from Morgan Kibby, a singer/actress, and the final product is mesmerizing.

Out of all the tracks on the album, Kim & Jessie and Up! are the most likely soundtrack to play behind Molly Ringwald at the prom, and are, thus, the most recognizably associated with the sound of the '80's. The former uses New Wave drum machines to back effete male vocals in a New Romantic vein while the latter begins with sparkling synths before tumbling into a wide-eyed, breathless Kate Bush-like tune (if you weren't already convinced by the sound of Kibby's vocals and the melody, the phrase "hounds of love" creeps into the lyrics). Lovely album opener, You, Appearing, is Cocteau Twinsesque with its gentle, plaintive piano and synth accents behind the overlapping chants of Kibby and Gonzalez. Both Skin of the Night and Graveyard Girl, though differing in mood (the former being moody and ethereal and the latter being bright and upbeat), each speaks to a melodramatic adolescent urge to live more and be more than you could ever possibly be. In Graveyard Girl, Kibby states "I'm fifteen years old and I feel like it's already too late to live," speaking to that naivete of youth, where emotions are intense and time progressively accelerates. At the beginning of Highway of Endless Dreams, Kibby speaks again, stating, "I'm going to drive until it burns my bones," before the song builds propulsively like a star burning up into supernova. In contrast, Too Late sounds like the stillness of a mossy pool where synth notes are dropped in like stones, sometimes skipping across the surface. Dark Moves of Love, which once again features an interchange of vocals between Kibby and Gonzalez begins with a Neil Tennant-like spoken line before launching into dramatic sweeps of sound, weaving an image of a dialogue taking place between two lovers in a maze of mirrors, chasing and losing each other again and again. The eleven-minute instrumental Midnight Souls Still Remain ends the album, creating a vast soundscape that conjures up images of outer space or underwater, both scenarios being connected to each other in more ways than one. Contrasting with M83's youthful, idealistic take on the 80's, Neon Neon's Stainless Style is a mosaic of a man who came to represent the excesses and eventual collapse of the '80's. In the Spring issue of Under the Radar, Gruff Rhys says Stainless Style is an "investigation of the American dream and the American nightmare. It's a celebration of all things plastic and synthetic." This oscillation between shiny light and seedy dark infiltrates the fabric of the album as it bounces between different styles, not all of them sounding quite like the '80's. Guest duties on the album include Spank Rock, Fab Moretti, Har Mar Superstar, Yo Majesty, and The Magic Numbers, varying the sound of the album even more. The age-old link between fast cars and fast girls holds true for this album as they come to be metaphors for each other.

The album opens with the instrumental Neon Theme, which uses a pumping bassline and laser-like sounds to create a glimpse of the future as imagined by the '80's. Like Saturdays=Youth, Stainless Style isn't always a mirror of the music created in the '80's, and the track Dream Cars is more akin to a '60's Motown melody than any yuppie's stereo. Conversely, I Told Her on Alderaan, which references Princess Leia's home planet, is a song that could have been performed by The Cars (no pun intended) with its synth flourishes on top of driving guitars. Trick for Treat, Sweat Shop and Luxury Pool are all hip-hop tracks, rapping narratives of Delorean's incredible ambition and talent and his equally as stupendous fall from grace. Trick For Treat deals specifically with Delorean's cocaine issues, namechecking Back to the Future, the Reagan-era mantra "feed the greed," and The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting For the Man. I Lust U, featuring vocals from Cate LeBon, is a cool dialogue between Delorean and a prostitute as they tell each other "I love you if the price is right." Belfast, which references Delorean's failed sportscar venture in Northern Ireland, is a mournful synthpop song in which Rhys sings, "I built my empire and threw it all away," while Michael Douglas, a Bronski Beat-type song with a modern twist, relates to the time Delorean attended pool parties with Douglas in LA. The album ends with title track, Stainless Style, which sounds like a gospel chorus, trailing into an acappella "Oh, how many are my foes/how many rise against me," perhaps a nod to Delorean's conversion to Christianity later in life. All in all, the jetsetting highs and tragic lows of Delorean's life become glossier and hypereal under Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys's treatment.

And so two very different albums and concepts meet up with their common interest in the '80's. A time when you either wanted to be stuck in Saturday detention or flying through time in a Delorean. Both M83 and Neon Neon are brilliant in their reimagining of the decade of my early childhood, and both manage to do it without irony (after all, irony belongs to the '90's). Now if only somebody could bring back neon Oreos...

Kim & Jessie - M83

Up! - M83

I Told Her on Alderaan - Neon Neon

Trick For Treat - Neon Neon