October 14, 2013
GRAMERCY THEATRE, 127 East 23rd Street, NEW YORK CITY
Hercules & Love Affair! LIVE ON STAGE!!!!
About Hercules & Love Affair…
Forget disco for a second. The most significant thing about the debut album from New York’s Hercules and Love Affair has less to do with revival than arrival– that of a compelling new voice in American dance music. Not Antony Hegarty’s, of Antony and the Johnsons, even though his pipes are an integral part of Hercules’ aesthetic, but Andrew Butler, a twentysomething resident of New York who has made one of 2008’s great albums, and one of the best longplayers from DFA. (DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy surely deserves some of the credit as well, as the album’s co-producer and the programmer behind most of the record’s beats.) Butler got his start writing music for art projects in college– “like a remake of Gino Soccio’s ‘Runaway’ done in the style of Kraftwerk,” he told Fact magazine– but Hercules and Love Affair’s music doesn’t require Fischerspooner-type theatrics. This debut album is a self-contained, self-assured, 10-song set that runs vintage styles through a restless compositional imagination to create something joyfully, startlingly unique.
Of course, you can’t entirely forget about disco; the record owes a debt to the dance-music of the 1970s and 80s, from Gamble & Huff-style strings to the camp sensibilities of Sylvester or Patrick Cowley. Butler has clearly studied Arthur Russell: His dancefloor jams have the same energy that drives uptempo Russell numbers like “Go Bang” and “Is It All Over My Face?”, and his arrangements– as when he nestles Kim Ann Foxman’s voice in a bed of spongy keys and bass on “Athene”, like an Easter egg in plastic grass– recall Russell’s facility for space and timbre.
There are plenty of signposts for disco, the genre: octave-toggling bass lines (played by Automato’s Andrew Raposo and !!!’s Tyler Pope), rattling congas, bouncing 4/4 kicks, and insistent open hi-hats. There are references to house, as well, as would be expected from a record whose lead single features a Frankie Knuckles remix. But they point less to the 90s version of house as a distinct genre, whether sleek and lush or raw and machinic, than to house music in its origins, when it was simply disco music that was played at the Warehouse. Only “You Belong”, with its taut, spiky drum machine programming and pistoning chords, engages the formalism of early Chicago house.
And it engages it brilliantly. What is often forgotten when talking about music so steeped in tradition is how it actually sounds– how it works, how it conjures. It would be a shame if Hercules and Love Affair’s music were to be reduced to the sum of its references, even in shorthand, because Butler’s music is too complex, too lovingly stuffed with ideas. ThatHercules and Love Affair is as unwieldy as its name– and also just as passionate, camp, and muscular– is one of its great pleasures. “You Belong” begins as a faithful exercise in acid-house revivalism, from the syncopated cowbell patterns to a looped vocal sample recalling the classic house invocations to “Jack, motherfucker.” (It doesn’t matter that the indistinct sample says something different; its cadence triggers something like an unconscious memory of acid house’s vocal tropes.) It’s the way that Butler and his collaborators mold formalist fidelity into something stranger that makes the track really sing, beginning with keyboards that seem to float on a cushion of air, and extending to the way that the singer Nomi’s lead vocals are mimicked by a multitracked backing refrain from Antony that sounds as though it’s been run through a prism. For its minor-key structure, the song’s augmented chords give it the quality of an exploding rainbow.
Not everything here is designed as “dance music.” The opening “Time Will”, one of the album’s highlights, mutates a standard disco framework into a weird and gelatinous torch song. “Iris”, likewise, slows house music’s pitter-patter dramatically, leaving the rhythm a framing device for the interplay between horns, synthesizers, and Foxman’s sentimental lead vocals. And “Easy”, the album’s most understated song, sounds so different from the rest of the record that it suggests an alternate trajectory Hercules and Love Affair could presumably pursue– a dusky noir somewhere between the Knife and Shriekback.
But while more than half of the album’s tracks would easily work on forward-thinking dance floors– “Hercules’ Theme”, “You Belong”, “Athene”, “Blind”, “This Is My Love”, “Raise Me Up”, and “True False, Fake Real” all cruise comfortably between 110 and 120 bpm– what really shines is the songwriting. The album brims with hooks, choruses, bridges, strange twists, and turns. It’s hardly maximalist– every song feels like it could be played by a four-or-five piece band with a few overdubs– and yet the record expands and contracts, pressing tones together before zooming outward to present each element in stark, shining relief. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the rollicking “Hercules’ Theme”, which opens with a spare loop of percussion, Rhodes, and electric bass and gradually balloons into a soaring mess of horns, string vamps, and vocal harmonies. Few producers can pull off excess as well as Butler and Goldsworthy; that they balance their outré tendencies with moments of careful restraint only confirms their finesse.
If the record has a flaw, it might be its overall pacing. “Time Will” and “Hercules’ Theme” feel like they’re vying for the opening slot, a sense confirmed by the fact that they’re in the same key. And the flow of the record’s latter half feels off, with the subdued “Iris” and “Easy” followed by another muted disco number (“This Is My Love”) before jumping back into the jaunty “Raise Me Up” and “True False, “Fake Real”. But these are quibbles. Hercules and Love Affair is a phenomenal album, one destined to save disco not from its detractors but rather from those fans and revivalists who would calcify the music as a set as a set of tropes and reference points. Lush, melancholic, gregarious, generous, both precise and a little bit unhinged– this is the most original American dance album in a long while.