The Sun and The Neon Light
(Get Physical; 2008)
By David Abravanel | 7 August 2008
Arena-sized electronic music hasn’t had the greatest go in the noughties. After peaking in the mid-‘90s with Orbital, Underworld, and Fatboy Slim, things scaled back as first minimal and now hipster house caught the vogue of the rockist intelligentsia. Mouse on Mars had a glitchy go of the arena with 2004’s Radical Connector, but still, Booka Shade represent an anomaly for the times. Like Underworld, Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier started as a more rock-inclined synth pop act before exploring techno pastures with 2004’s minimalist Momento. Movement (2006) was the real breakout for the duo, though: singles like “Mandarin Girl” catapulted them out of electronic obscurity and found them blipping suddenly on the radar of the rock press.
Unfortunately, this mantle of Next Big Serious Electronic Artist appears to have gotten to Booka Shade; their latest, The Sun & The Neon Light, is an exhibit in trying too hard. To begin with, there’s an obvious attempt at a more “cerebral” or “progressive” (read: liable to be mired in snooze-worth pretension) sound here. Opener “Outskirts” passes by with gorgeous but unremarkable sounds. I’ve heard it at least a dozen times at this point, but I still couldn’t hum it for you. With lush strings and appropriately klangy percussion, it’s all very pretty but doesn’t go anywhere interesting. In fact, neither does track two; the first memorable moment is “Dusty Boots,” three tracks in. Cribbing from the big-beat bag o’ tricks, the track is built around a southern rock guitar loop, time-stretched to the point where digitally manipulated seams are in plain sight. The drums and synthesizer work complements the sample well, chugging on like a hayride, making “Boots” the closest thing to a down-home arena techno jam since the harmonica on Underworld’s “Big Mouth.”
The center of The Sun is its hottest part, with two dynamite singles, “Charlotte” and “Numbers,” stacked against one another. “Charlotte” works well because it’s clearly two artists giddily discovering a dynamite synth riff and running with it. The buildups are all where you’d expect them to be, but it’s still an immensely satisfying piece of work, and a track that proves that Booka Shade are still worth following. As for “Numbers,” it’s at the other end of the carefree spectrum, a modern cousin of the classic troubled house crooner epics you’d find booming out of Chicago in the ’80s. Providing their own vocals, Merziger and Kammermeier aren’t Robert Owens, but their fatigued delivery works well for a line like: “What’s your number? / I really want you / Make me forget / I’m just like everybody else.” The message of the song is pretty familiar—see, there’s this club if you’d like to go, you could meet someone who really loves you—and you know how this story ends. Booka Shade manage to squeeze all the melancholy and malaise out of the situation without descending into eye-rolling territory, and the bangs of house keyboards are just (very nice) icing.
There’s other fun songs on The Sun, but nothing that sustains itself as consistently as “Charlotte” and “Numbers.” The title track takes half its time getting to a decent melody before dropping it for minor-major meandering. “Psychameleon”’s skanky bounce is uncharacteristically joyous for the album, until more whispered vocals get in the way. With a decent, finger-snapping melody and menacing synth descents in the background, it’s a good ape of Depeche Mode, and betrays Booka Shade’s routes in synth pop.
Okay, perhaps I lied earlier; there is, in fact, one more piece of unmitigated beauty on this album, one track that in its very existence, suggest that Booka Shade have it in them to do this formula better justice in the future. “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me (J’s Lullaby),” dedicated to Merziger’s infant son, has the potential right off the bat to be a cheesy new age exercise. Instead, the track unfolds gracefully as an ominous sound of heavy breathing suggests life in utero while backwards strings and piano rush by. Merziger’s soothing hum puts the listener in the place of an infant, but the piece here seeks not to offer infantile comfort but rather to sit back, look, and wonder, perhaps in the way that a baby might. Chimes and mellotron cascade in and out before lethargic piano and melodica take over for the synths, closing out gracefully. “Charlotte” proves that Booka Shade can still crack out the arena-techno that made their name; “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me” suggests that, if they really are intent on pursuing a more ambient, string-laden direction, the best direction is inward.