“How sick it must’ve been to be there/in the middle of the past and the future/you’d know it couldn’t last/as the story goes now/and everyone knows/even history’ll show/everything revolves around peaks like those”. While there are plenty of bands out there trying to revive the musical styles of the New Wave era, Datarock are unusually explicit about it; the lyrics above come from a song called “Back in the Seventies”, which references Fela Kuti, YMO, and Devo, and has the line “Cause all the best of the early eighties/at least up to ’83/was an extension of seventies post-modernity”. Datarock’s music is a combination of the grooves of the Talking Heads, the jerkiness of Devo, and the partytime atmosphere of the Happy Mondays – though I find such descriptions to be lazy, Datarock themselves would probably describe themselves that way. Red is one big love letter to everything from 1977-1987; listen closely and you’ll hear references to Michael Jackson, Prince (the album’s beginning apes Purple Rain), “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, Molly Ringwald (“Molly”), “Money For Nothing”, David Bowie, “Take On Me”, and a whole lot of Talking Heads (you really can’t miss ’em on “True Stories” – every line is a Talking Heads song title).
Datarock’s desire to fit Red in with the Remain in Lights and Freedom of Choices is so great that they decided to record the album exclusively with instruments made before 1984; this sort of conceit is usually reserved for prog groups (real Hammonds and a refurbished mellotron from Robert Fripp’s dumpster!), but the irony here is that Red doesn’t exactly sound retro. Yeah, those arpeggiated synth lines they throw all over the place are a real throwback, but otherwise this album feels quite modern, especially as everyone from Daft Punk to the Black Eyed Peas are using those same sounds these days. Datarock belong to that same group of dancepunk revivalists as Hot Chip, The Rapture, YACHT, !!!, and Cut Copy – the “bands to watch” class of 2005, groups that were advertised as a modern take on New Wave and disco (with attitude!). If you ask me, Datarock and LCD Soundsystem were the only bands in that bunch to really deliver on that promise. LCD of course we all know about, but Datarock haven’t quite had that sort of success. With LCD Soundsystem there was at least sort of ironic distance there; you knew that Murphy could coalesce everything worth saving from that era without giving it a Space Invaders atmosphere. He was a guy hip enough to namecheck the likes of Can and Scott Walker, and savvy enough to only lift music from the deeper recesses of disco culture. But critics seem to have a hard time with Datarock, a band that writes songs like “Nightflight to Uranus” and displays an unabashed enthsiasm for all things 80’s. All these other bands may have admired Devo, but they didn’t want to be Devo, exactly.
That’s the difference; Datarock take their influences more seriously than they take themselves, in a genre where usually the opposite is true. The band, clad in red tracksuits and wraparound sunglasses, don’t even really care if you know who they are – their live lineup consists of anywhere from 2 to 60 members (“core” Datarock seems to be four guys). On Red, you’ve got “True Stories”, an entire song dedicated to glorifying Talking Heads. Another is called “Dance!” and has the refrain “dancing is/everything”. There’s “Amarillion”, a song straight from the imagination of a love-struck teenager imagining himself in a John Hughes movie, brave enough to namecheck “Take On Me” right there in the chorus (in a way, Datarock are the spiritual successors to A-ha, also hailing from Norway, a land usually reserved for the blackest of black metal). It’s hard to imagine a band delivering this sort of music with a straight face but Datarock really do have that enthusiasm. Imitators they may be, but they’ve sure as hell done their homework – “Amarillion” boasts no less than four major hooks, and most songs save one truly killer part for the very end (case in point, the first two singles, “Give it Up” and “True Stories”, both of which end brilliantly).
Datarock are of course aware of their status; Red is both an attempt to fit in with the golden era of New Wave and a remembrance of it. Like many modern prog rock bands, you get the sense that they feel as though they missed out by not being born twenty years earlier. This of course is what “Back in the Seventies” is all about, but likewise “Molly” has that twinge of sadness to it, still pining for a teen idol whose teenage years were long in the past. There’s also a theme of communication and the advent of the internet, both in “The Blog” and “The Pretender”; the former is a big ol’ paean to the net, willing to reference Napster, name itself “The Blog”, and use the phrase “hey, information highway” – and in a way it’s the least dated song on here. Meanwhile, I think the latter is about how being online gives you the ability to pretty much represent yourself as anything you want, but the lyrics are rather cryptic so who knows? Lyrics aren’t really important here, given how incredibly hooky each and every one of these tunes are. “The Pretender” is the real winner in that regard, the natural product of a lifetime listening to Devo, and perhaps Datarock’s single greatest tune. All four singles here are great, but upon relistening what I found impressive is a little stretch in the middle, containing “In the Red”, an instrumental, and “Fear of Death”, partly a spoken-word piece about just that. On most albums these would be filler, a way to hit the 40-minute mark without having to do a lot of writing. And yet both these songs work – “In the Red” due to some neat sound design and an interesting progression, “Fear of Death” thanks to a really sweet and tuneful chorus, something which may have been an alternate refrain to “Amarillion”.
This is why Red was one of my two favorite albums of 2009 (Dan Deacon’s Bromst was another really good one); it was, perhaps, the least innovative album of the year, but it also was the one I listened to the most, because sometimes music is just that simple, sometimes ultra-melodic party music that you can shout along to is just the best thing (I will point out that it’s fun to imitate Fredrik Saroea’s tendency to draw out half the vowels). Sadly the record-buying public didn’t feel the same way; they did a couple of long US tours, and judging by the two shows I was at they drew decent crowds, but I think they envisioned Red as a breakthrough album that would lead to the same sort of fame worldwide that they already had in Norway. I actually thought “Give It Up” was going to be a big single, hopefully as big as say, “Take Me Out” or whatever, but it didn’t happen. In 2011 they did give it one more shot with “Catcher in the Rye”, billed as “the most extravagant single of all time” – released on a USB stick enclosed in a plastic figurine, it included the group’s entire discography up to that point, including a bunch of rare songs, an unreleased instrumental album, a collection of forty remixes, a concert film, hundreds of photos, and a sneak peek at the band’s next project, Datarock: The Musical, in the form of a five-song EP that’s ridiculously entertaining. That got some attention too, if only for how much overkill it was – Datarock’s entire output really boils down to about two hours worth of music right now, and I say that as a fan. “Catcher in the Rye” itself is another really great tune, seemingly written solely to stick in your head forever (and boy does it ever), but the trouble with it, and with Datarock in general, is that it’s a little too on-the-nose. Referencing the 80’s is fine, but I feel it’s a tough sell if you’re not also mocking it or trying to at least improve on it in some way; most of these dancepunk bands either acknowledge or deflect their own ridiculousness rather than try to own it, which is why The Rapture never quite delivered that album full of “House of Jealous Lovers” that we all hoped might come along. Red‘s issue is that it tries hard to emulate a number of really great albums that probably wouldn’t have sold in 2009 anyway, thus by succeeding it dug it’s own grave.
So I guess the fundamental question here is, how does Red stack up? Song-for-song, does it compete with Freedom of Choice, Fear of Music, Look Sharp!, Pills n’ Thrills n’ Bellyaches, and so on and so forth? Well it just so happens I listened to all of these albums in a row during a workday and I would say it does – now that the disc is over five years old there’s a little perspective there, and the songs do still sound excellent. Which brings the next question, what the hell has Datarock been up to the last five years? I spoke with Saroea once when I ran into him outside a venue and he told me that the group’s musical was getting ready to make its debut – this was in 2011. They crop up now and again to do a collaborative single, and last year they did release the 30-minute single “In E”, basically a cover of “Hallo Gallo” (going backwards, are we?) Now it’s 2015 and a third Datarock album has yet to surface; that’s six years by the way, the same amount of time as the 77-83 peak of New Wave. With most of the aforementioned dancepunk groups having fizzled out, the world needs ’em now more than ever.