Italians Do It Better Brings Us Computer Love, Druggy Disco, And Conga Pop

TimFinney | April 8, 2008 11:45 am

Despite our housebound reputation, even bloggers like to occasionally go out and shake what passes for our stuff. That’s why every two weeks Idolator club guru Tim Finney will be dragging us onto the dancefloor to explore the latest sounds from the worlds of house, techno, and beyond. After the jump, he takes a look at the newest crop of releases from neo-disco imprint Italians Do It Better–including records from Glass Candy, Farah, and Invisible Conga People–all of which take the label’s synth-heavy sound into exciting new places.

Glass Candy’s Beat Box album emerged at the tail end of last year, and in the typical December rush, I slightly underestimated (or perhaps simply took for granted) its arch charms, despite being hooked on the chilly Italo-disco revivalism of the duo’s label Italians Do It Better for much of last year. I’ve returned to it often lately, though, especially to this album’s version of the duo’s cover of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love”, which shifts from spare and dreamy to an impossibly lush outro that rivals anything I’ve heard in the past 12 months for sheer beauty.

Listening to Glass Candy’s records, I had assumed that singer Ida No’s glassy, distracted distance stemmed from a kind of icy reserve, whether real or staged; I expected her live shows to be full of energetic but blank performances somewhere between Roisin Murphy and Debbie Harry. Instead, when I saw the duo perform last week, she embodied an unembarrassed hippie euphoria, skipping around the stage in a fruit-loop smock and tights, and waving her arms in vaguely deliberate tree-branch formations, like Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” transformed into an exercise video. Imploring the audience to leave behind their humanity and become colors and shapes, she resembled a drama teacher taking bewildered students through a “physical expression” class, blissfully ignorant of their unease. If she still seemed distant, it was less about her refusing to come to us than us being unable to go completely to her.

Equally as compelling was bandmate Johnny Jewel, triggering backing tracks and playing live synth arpeggios on top, all the while jumping up and down like he wanted to bust out a keytar. But if he looked like he was just bashing the keys, the complexity of his wall-of-sound suggested otherwise: synth melodies interlocked and spiralled over each other with a woozy abandon that helped conceal the military precision with which each motif was deployed. The show’s pinnacle was the duo’s cover of La Belle Epoque’s “Miss Broadway”, with No’s shrill sighs ultimately subsiding into awed silence before Jewel’s ever-expanding concoction of pirouetting synthesisers, disco strings, and faux-saxophones.

It is, of course, a very indie reflex to want to dress up old populist sounds with more serious “musical” pretensions, and the most obvious distinction between Jewel’s work and proper, honest-to-goodness Italo-disco from the eighties is the former’s portentous air of foreboding, even on tunes as relatively fun and frivolous as “Miss Broadway,” to say nothing of the moody tributes to The Cure that make up the bulk of his recent work with labelmates Chromatics. But it’s precisely because of the unabashed cheesiness of italo-disco that it makes such a fitting backdrop to the post-punk and new wave allusions of Jewel’s collaborators. Of course Italo-disco doesn’t need Italians Do It Better’s artists to retrospectively guarantee its worth; after eight years or so of italo revivalism in dance music, such a claim would be as naively ignorant as it is misguided. Really, it’s the other way ’round: An act like Glass Candy needs Italo-disco to ground its skewed charm, like a succubus surviving only on the blood of its victims. Parasitic, sure, but indie music (not least of all indie dance music) has always been this way, and it’s too late in the day for hand-wringing.

I’m torn on the question of whether Jewel and friends should go more or less disco; the joyous “Miss Broadway” was a revelation in a live setting, but Jewel’s panoramic Italo grooves often sound best at their most wraith-like, as on last year’s productions for Farah on the label’s After Dark compilation. As I understand it, Farah is a young Persian beat poet from Texas, a dubious tag to say the least, but it works brilliantly. On “Law of Life” she recites a state-of-the-world soliloquy in a voice that moves through paranoia, insight, resignation, and hallucination with the barest shift in intonation, while behind her Jewel’s impossibly statuesque synth arpeggios quietly announce the end of the world. On “Dancing Girls” she slips in and out of Persian, and sleepily murmurs tantalizing phrases like “Oriental dress/ The one you love is a mess…dancing from the opium.”

With its slowly shuffling tabla beats, spaceship synthesiser noises, and glinting guitar picking, Farah’s new track “Baby Girl” reveals just how far the label’s aesthetic can stretch, secured only by the solitary thread of throbbing keyboards. The song shares the same druggy, drone-y vibe as IDIB’s other material, but the decoupling of that vibe from the label’s trademark Italo grooves suggests a broad terrain of avant electronic pop for the label’s artists to explore should they choose.

If Italians Do It Better can successfully make that jump so early on its development, it’ll be something of a coup; my personal daydream is of a modern day version of Factory Records, perhaps with Jewel as the equivalent of New Order’s Be Music production house. The danger of this route is the possibility that the artists won’t be able to find an adequate replacement for the easy charms of the Italo template; it’s Farah’s at times facile lyrics and dress-rehearsal performance, rather than the music, that makes “Baby Girl” a comparatively weak effort from her, but it’s the move away from hypnotic post-Moroder grooves that brings the song’s shortcomings into sharp focus, whereas a non-stop disco beat can absolve all sorts of transgressions.

But new IDIB signing Invisible Conga People amply demonstrate that the pay-off can be worth the risk, fashioning a Krautrock-house hybrid that sounds utterly distinct while fitting the label’s aesthetic hand-in-glove. On their debut twelve-inch, “Weird Pains” sets spaced-out minimal bleeping and ticking beats against incomprehensible whispers and mutters, before giving way to hypnotic tribal percussion that appears to have wandered in from a Luciano or Ricardo Villalobos record. The overall effect falls somewhere between Kompakt’s Matias Aguayo and a synthetic Can, the duo’s freeform live jamming circling around a muffled house thud. But Invisible Conga People also share Jewel’s love of keyboard patterns that seem to float off into the ether, like a receding stretch of road illuminated by taillights. The A-side “Cable Dazed” ramps up the prettiness factor by cross-pollinating the murky glower of “Weird Pains” with the spacey new age arpeggios of Tangerine Dream and sweet but indecipherable duet vocals. Imagine the DFA remix of Delia & Gavin’s “Rise” refashioned as a close-harmony pop song, and you’re close.

Meanwhile, Invisible Conga People’s remix of Simian Mobile Disco’s “I Got This Down” is a startling, sideways swerve into (something approaching) dance-pop, overlaying floaty synth arpeggios, hesitant piano chords, and almost cheesy breakbeat house rhythms, contrasting SMD’s nu-rave with an alternate lineage of gentle emo-rave running through Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea” and 69’s “Desire.” Here the group’s “Krautrock” side exists as a kind of spectral presence, an air of seriousness and reverence, but you’d be forgiven for also thinking of Enigma. This almost-camp level of earnestness is no bad thing, in this case; as with the rest of the artists on Italians Do It Better, Invisible Conga People revel in the intoxicating power of the fetish, and the track’s primitive dance signifiers fairly shine in the light of the duo’s awed regard for them.

Glass Candy [MySpace] Farah [MySpace] Invisible Conga People [MySpace] Italians Do It Better [MySpace]