, October 18th, 2010 10:45
From Canada and signed to a New York label, geographical happenstance helps Automelodi on their way to being the perfect package. That is to say, the Montreal homestead of Xavier Paradis – who essentially is Automelodi, while being joined on his debut album by several guest musicians – means that he can non-affectedly sing in French. The language of romantic intellectualism, if you want to be crass about it; more pertinently, it’s the language of cold wave, the largely Francophonic branch of continental post punk which flowered in the early 80s. Both Paradis, who has played in stylishly gloomy synth-based outfits like this for over a decade, and Wierd Records, a small but highly regarded imprint helmed by a professional painter called Pieter Schoolwerth, are central to the current revival of the cold wave and minimal synth subgenres. Automelodi are only the sixth band released by Wierd since the label’s birth four years ago; the status which Schoolwerth’s brainchild nevertheless now enjoys speaks volumes for his keenly discerning ear. Let’s just whizz through them.
Martial Canterel, aka Sean McBride, is the Wierd artist on most fervently nodding terms with the noise/crypto-industrial scene – his Refuge Underneath collection on the label consists of jarring, prototypically thuggish drum machine and bass boom which hails Throbbing Gristle and Suicide in the same dancably overdriven manner as Adult. (who spent most of the 00s anticipating this current crop of coldwavers, and deserve a hell of a lot more respect for it). Blacklist are the only one of these bands who actually sound like they want to have halls fulla fools grabbing for their hems – their MO is birdsnest-haired anthemia with Clearchannel-ready production values (album mastered by Howie Weinberg, dammit), and it may not be too late for them to get some of the cheddar dropped by Interpol or even the bleeding Killers. Led Er Est are an unfeasible yet workable conference of space-hailing Detroit techno synths, goth-pop gloom and Von LMO art-snarl. Xeno & Oaklander, a duo featuring McBride, are like The Human League if they’d tried to retain ‘Being Boiled’ as the basic template for their whole career, even when they were funneling cash into lavish studios. Frank (Just Frank) feature two gentlemen, neither of whom are called Frank, and they have somehow gussied up a background amidst the dope-on-the-downlow French black metal scene into a band which is so hysterically post-Joy Division ’83 Britindie Foucault-reference-in-the-NME-review vintage, you feel wrong reading about them without getting ink on your fingers.
And finally, joining that unruffled laundry list come Automelodi, touting only one EP prior to this eponymous twelve-tracker. ‘Schéma Corporel’ appeared on it, but is worthy of being relit for Automelodi, as its opener no less. But for Paradis’ tongue, it sounds as Italian as someone sexually breathing about a tomato; the airily Italo keyboards are all muscles and grappa. ‘Airline’, described by a caller at this house as sounding “like music you’d hear playing over credits at the end of a film,” is the only English-language song on the record. This has helped to render it a point of mild fixation for me in the last fortnight or so, but it’s not the sole reason. Musically, it owes something to that luridly strident schaffel rhythm that has had its widest exposure by Gary Glitter and his Glitter Band; this is like if pre-rockist Depeche Mode and the composer of the Addams Family theme hijacked their songwriting chops. It has the earwormiest synth riff of 2010 and a semi-mocking portrait of someone buying plane tickets to nowhere in particular in an attempt to counter depression.
‘Rayons de Rien’, supposedly about being trapped in a room of malfunctioning automatic doors, has that same ineffable pop nous the Pet Shop Boys nailed time and again – a minimal grandeur where the feel of an orchestral sweep is achieved without any of the instrumentation or effects. Conversely – yet kind of not – ‘Buanderie Jazz’ is Automelodi’s most ‘indie’ turn, like a spruced-up version of something the Sarah label might have offered once its roster got into music with beats. This is something Automelodi share not only with most other Wierd bands, but also the majority of the cold wave originators and the New Orders and OMDs who overshadowed them. Neither guitars or synths were verboten, as it was evident they could cohabit with sterling results; there was no relevant ideological battle between the Musicians’ Union and Whitehouse’s ‘Rock And Roll’. May it always be, really.
It isn’t immediately clear if Paradis treats Automelodi as quote-unquote pop music: you could make a full-tilt argument for or against without being wrong, necessarily. On one hand, his tastes and inspirations (likewise those of Schoolwerth) swirl round in a money drain of long-lost European seven-inches and cassettes which it would take a king’s ransom to collect in a dedicated manner. Slow, moribund tracks like ‘Stylo-Bille’ put the ‘minimal’ into the minimal synth genre, certainly. On the flipside, ‘Employé Terne’ mentions Kafka, has an amusingly superfluous guitar breakdown at approximately 1.30 and a keyboard refrain straight from the personal cut-out bin of ‘Popcorn’ hitmakers Hot Butter.
To these ears, only once does this Quebecois-via-everywhere record specifically sound like something that likely came from France: ‘Limite Malade’, where keening keyboards swell like the grumpiest session string quartet and Paradis, plus guest vocalist Mélanie Levitte, trade lines like Gainsbourg and Bardot never died or self-Nazified. Pieter Schoolwerth writes of Automelodi’s “highly unique” position in the contemporary North American musical landscape, as purveyors and advocates of “the infinitely rich ground of French pop musical history”. At the risk of pedantry, I’m compelled to credit Pas Chic Chic – one of the post-Godspeed You! Black Emperor bands, also from Montreal and peers of Automelodi, at least of the ‘top Myspace friends’ type – as being equally indebted to the most enduring icons of pre/post-riot Paris.
This doesn’t dilute the Wierd don’s observation that much, though: Paradis and friends walk an extremely studied, extremely steady line between unabashed tribute to their forefathers, and puzzle-piecing of influences into unlikely fine art. Automelodi might be the highlight of the Wierd discography to date, and of 2010 for anyone who understands pop music can exist on the fringes without being oxymoronic.