It can’t be easy being Booka Shade right now. After setting up one of the most successful electronic music labels in recent memory, releasing two commercially and critically acclaimed long players and one well-appreciated mixed album, penning some of the most instantly recognizable house singles of our times, and wowing fans with their ability to put on an actual proper live show in club surroundings, what is seriously left for Arno and Walter to do at this point?
On the basis of The Sun & The Neon Light, their third studio album, it looks like the Berlin duo have decided that their next move is going to be—oh God—album-based dance music. Two converging currents are looming over this album’s head: on one hand a devotion to electronic pop craftsmanship a la their own personal Jesuses Depeche Mode, and on the other an obvious desire to make a genuine album, complete big studio production and genuine instrumentation. Sadly, the end result sits between two chairs: it’s an exercise of endurance and adroitness that is impressive at times, but one that leaves you feeling vaguely dissatisfied and exhausted. One thing is sure: that is not a position best suited for any tangible body movements.
The first striking thing about The Sun & The Neon Light is how discreet, and just too plain quiet it is. Right at the beginning, for instance, ‘Outskirts’ and ‘Duke’ set up a familiar tone with quirky melodies and crackling delicate beats, but even luxuriant strings or jazzy pulses can’t alleviate the fact these songs have a definite horizontal, slightly lazy tempo. The same can be said about the surprisingly sweet closer ‘You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me’, which is basically comedown shoegazing folk (!). Fans, especially those who felt for Memento’s cinematographic charms and overall grandeur, might feel right at home, but moreover this is what serious and mature albums should look like, and this is obviously what Booka Shade had in mind. But you’d also be right to pine for a bit of their dance floor-oriented expertise.
Which is not to say there are no actual bangers on the album, because there are a few. Well, okay, there is one: the cheerful ‘Charlotte’ is obviously destined to become a live favorite, but mostly because it is the only track openly asking you to get into the groove. Former singles ‘Karma Car’ (aka ‘Mandarine Girl Part 2’) and ‘Planetary’ (aka Troy Pierce on growth hormones) are also rather excellent and effective; however, they are unfortunately presented in shortened album versions, and both suffer from the amputation procedure. No wonder someone from the label felt the need to include with initial pressings of the album an exclusive mixed CD with proper “dance” edits of some of the tracks: cynics could even suggest this is where the new Booka Shade album really hides.
For the rest, the duo opt for mid-tempo electronic pop songs with discrete vocals best suited for home listening than E-induced euphoria, i.e. after-rave Depeche Mode. ‘Dusty Boots’, for example, with its bluesy guitars and pulsating vocal samples, wouldn’t sound of out of place at all on Songs of Faith and Devotion. That said, the song itself drivels on for three minutes without ever fulfilling its full potential, as does the inconsequential ‘Solo City’. The title track also has hints of DM’s ‘Something To Do’ and its famous industrial samples and overall sense of urgency, but here slightly less paranoid, while ‘Psychameleon’, with its opening stumping rhythmic pattern, sounds like a cute and German cousin of ‘Personal Jesus’ (but without Dave Gahan’s sense of sexualized drama). ‘Comacabana’ also shamelessly echoes DM, this time Martin Gore’s effeminate cooing and Exciter-like abstractions. In short, these are all very well executed, and they’d probably sound great in the context of a full-band live performance in stadium settings or on headphones at home, but as Get Physical-sponsored tracks destined for the dancefloor, they are lacking the very spark that made ‘Cha!’, ‘Mandarine Girl’ or ‘In White Rooms’ so visceral in the first place.
Finally, ‘Control Me’ (along with ‘Sweet Lies’) is one of the tracks on which the guys actually sing, which is a welcome addition to their repertoire. It is where their newly acquired sense of confident musicianship is evident, and probably the album’s most accomplished song-based moment. But serve these hushed vocals with luscious strings, pounding live bassline, heady main melody, stabbing pads in the background, and climaxing organ coda without any actual charismatic frontman, and you get a dizzying result on which there is just too much and nothing much happening at the same time.
Rare are electronic producers who can sustain a streak of three winning long players in a row, let alone not lose their proverbial soul in the process. Maybe this one just came too quickly after the Movement CD/DVD reissue, so the immediate comparison is inevitable. Maybe Get Physical’s recent arrays into things other than strict tech house (Nôze, Junior Boys, Raz Ohara) remain a bit confusing even for its owners. But one thing is sure: as a random synth-pop album, The Sun… hangs in there with skilled professionalism, but as a Booka Shade album, it feels more like A Broken Frame than a bona fide Violator.
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