As I read yet another blog rave or lavish review, I keep returning to this Hercules & Love Affair album; a record I keenly want to like, but can never quite get on with. If you’ve somehow missed all the fuss thus far, it’s an opulent nu-disco album, populated by a cast of New York nightlife denizens (including, most conspicuously, Antony Hegarty), and released on James Murphy’s eccentric but generally trustworthy DFA imprint.
Obviously this isn’t quite my specialist area, but like Kelley Polar’s “I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling”, another nu-disco album with some blog heat building around it, I think my biggest stumbling block is with the vocals. The best track on the Hercules album, to my ears at least, is the brash shimmy of “Hercules’ Theme”, where the vocals are discreet texturing, and the classy arrangement – some lovely swinging horns of some kind or other – come to the fore.
Antony doesn’t sing on all the tracks, but I wonder if his voice – that instantly recognisable timbre which is at first remarkable, but has been so omnipresent over the past couple of years that it’s become wearying – is too characterful, too distracting. There’s no doubt that Andrew Butler has a gift for understanding how disco can be aesthetically satisfying, how it can be a complex and stimulating musical form as well as a simply hedonistic one. But maybe next time, for my tastes, a dub version of the album would work better.
I’m playing the Kelley Polar album as I write, and similar problems arise for me here. The first track, “A Feeling Of The All-Thing”, is quite wonderful; a tender and elaborate fantasia of strings and beats that betrays Polar’s classical training. But while the meticulous arrangements – especially the vocal ones – are often fascinating, Polar’s own voice is rather weedy and indie. Like The Junior Boys, it seems to undermine, the beauty of his musical artifices – apart, perhaps, from “Satellites”, where he summons up the spirit of mid-1980s Green Gartside.
What occurs to me right now, though, is that it’s not just the vocals that undermine these two albums; it’s the vocal melodies. Butler and Polar might be skilled at constructing these exquisite settings, these acutely melodic rethinks of club music. But maybe constructing a vocal melody, or one which perfectly complements the rest of the tune, is something harder, a distinct art which we don’t always properly acknowledge. It reminds me of the old Smiths conundrum, and how Morrissey’s solo vocal melodies feel so directionless away from Johnny Marr’s secure settings, and yet how Marr’s post-Smiths work has lacked that extra dimension. Maybe Butler and Polar just need to find collaborators who really work with them?
With a certain grim inevitability, the nu-disco album I’ve been playing and enjoying much more than the others has received precious little hype, as far as I’ve seen. “Staying In” is, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, an instrumental album by Diskjokke, some guy called Joachim Dyrdahl from Oslo.
Like Polar, Dyrdahl is classically trained, and “Staying In” begins with a flurry of concert-hall piano, before the squelchy beats and handclaps arrive, and the whole thing gets going. The Hercules and Polar albums seem to occupy some precarious state of melancholic euphoria, or at least that’s how they feel to me. Dyrdahl, though, doesn’t seem quite so emotionally complex, and weirdly, it’s the unaffected brightness, the sunny bounce of “Staying In” that makes it so satisfying.
There are definite parallels with those lovely records by Lindstrom & Prins Thomas that have come out of Oslo, too, but I’m also hearing echoes of the Warp stuff I fixated on for a long time; the playful, elastic end of that IDM scene, like Plaid, say. I’ve taken off Polar now, and the title track of “Staying In” has just come on. The ersatz horns would make it sit nicely alongside “Hercules’ Theme”, but it feels much less cool, less fashion-plate. Somehow, Diskjokke sounds at once geeky and un-self-consciously transported.
I bet “Staying In” won’t get anything like the hipster love of those other two records, but I suspect it’ll be the one out of these three that I’ll keep playing long after the fuss has died down.