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Zoot Woman
Things Are What They Used To Be Iain Moffat , November 4th, 2009 09:25

It wasn't often that terrific-yet-terrifying shouty Leicesterians Prolapse could be considered orthodox, but their 1998 single 'Deanshanger' was precisely that: it reeled off a litany of unpleasantries from the preceding decade and concluded, snarlingly and memorably, that "the 80s were crap". Indeed, back then it was widely felt that the only redeeming features of the age had been the Smiths and Public Enemy; so for Stuart Price to emerge mere months later with what amounted to a love letter to Smash Hits' heyday, Les Rythmes Digitales' 'Darkdancer', appeared a positively suicidal move.

Nonetheless, the passage of time has proved that his championing of retro-futurism was in fact entirely justified: the future really has ended up sounding exactly like the performers of the past always contended it would. Evidently, though, Price being right isn't enough for him. He's dusted down his electroclash-anticipating project Zoot Woman and the thinking behind this move is palpable; after all, why shouldn't he get his share of the pop star spoils?

Well, for one thing, he cuts a markedly less flamboyant presence nowadays than he did as a flame-tressed neophyte with a preposterous Gallic backstory — indeed, he's become alarmingly unassuming for someone who's held court with Madonna. And, for another, whether you lived through the period or simply learned about it by watching BBC4's superb Synth Britannia documentary the other week, you'll be aware that the original synth heyday was enormously informed by its very different social backdrop; the days when the lyrical concerns of 'Enola Gay', 'Penthouse And Pavement' et al resonate commercially may yet return, but we're certainly not living through them at the moment. All things considered, though, Price sidesteps these two problems very adeptly indeed: the latter via a very human lyrical engagement rather than any attempted cultural statement, and the former by casting himself as an everyman figure buoyed by a swell of furious technical luminescence.

And what luminescence! The bookends alone shimmer and pulse with pop majesty. On opener 'Just A Friend Of Mine' the keyboards are awash with spacehopper crescendos and that old français staple, disco filtration, is resurrected to fine effect, while the climactic 'Live In My Head' employs the scampering synth stabs of Simple Minds' 'I Travel' and packs an unusually Depeche punch at its existential crux. But really, Things Are What They Used To Be feels more like a greatest hits collection than almost any artist album this year (a possible exception being, appropriately enough, Frankmusik). 'Lonely By Your Side', for example, is surely a single in the making, its delicious bip-pop backing bolstered by darkly chimey guitars; same applies to standout centrepiece 'Saturation', which sits satsifyingly at the point where New Order started carving out their own post-Joy Division niche. And last year's low-key single 'We Won't Break', with its traffic-jam honkery, escapist urges and happy-go-lucky underlying strums, would unquestionably have had a cheerful chart residency were there major label propulsion behind it.

The reason there's a real delight in listening to Zoot Woman, rather than just rifling through the New Pop archives, is that there's rather more to them than a cursory glance might suggest. Dance music has moved on a good deal in the last quarter-century, and Price and pals are shrewd enough to acknowledge this throughout. Wisely, they're not at home to Mr Autotune; but that's not to say that they can't incorporate endearing techno tics — 'Memory' is the prime example, but you can hear the influence of classic Warp on the weightless 'Take You Higher' (think mid-period LFO) and in the playful minimalism of 'Blue Sea' (which owes a clear debt to Boards Of Canada). Hell, they're even adventurous enough to nod toward Muse's chunkier instincts on 'Lust Forever', which is a mighty astute way to defy potential pigeonholers. Whether they'll get another shot if they miss this most opportune of moments is anyone's guess, but they've crafted a remarkable work nonetheless.

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