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Songs About Drugs And Dancing Lee Arizuno , February 19th, 2009 04:49

There's a suitably geometric neatness to the second album by Circlesquare, the musical guise of sometime visual artist Jeremy Shaw, that gives it a deceptive strength. One glance at the cover's image of a broken black light bulb and you'll know this is going to be a set of songs about losing your taste for the night life. Taken from Shaw's Anti-Psych exhibition in his native Vancouver, the amount of thought behind such a simple image (as he explains it: black light bulbs used to be the cheapest form of psychedelia available to teenagers; those innocent times have gone and harder, faster drugs have crept in; crystal meth users smoke the drug out of shards of broken light bulbs) is also applied to his music, which is conceptually airtight from the cover down to the kick drum.

Making a compelling electropop record about not taking drugs or dancing is a tall order of course, but Shaw has a sound enough grasp of dance music to convincingly re-purpose its conventions to less hedonistic ends. Lead single 'Dancer', for example, is as simultaneously loose and metronomic as the best floor-fillers, but refuses to take off, pushing the focus back onto Shaw's laconic, drained vocals. His instinct for pop is keen, too: 'Hey You Guys' might not sound like much at first, until you notice its simple melody doing the rounds in your head hours later.

While the idea of economic, melancholy electropop might call to mind Depeche Mode or Junior Boys, Songs… is actually quite an offbeat record: Shaw's sole fellow traveller might be that other detached chronicler of hedonism taken too far, former Output labelmate Colder. But where Colder savoured the shivers, dramatising the endpoint as being something like Solaris rather than the more banal comedown familiar to most, Shaw plays it straight. Surprisingly, this doesn't prevent him from conjuring up sublime sound worlds. 'Music For Satellites' is a slow-building, back-loaded atmosphere piece whose beats don't kick in till a minute or two from the end, catching you in their undertow; slow jam 'Stop Taking (So Many)' could be Art Of Noise's 'Moments In Love' reworked for robots in rehab, and drifts seamlessly into simple, texturally deteriorating rounds.

As you might expect of an album devoted to one idea, in a couple of places the central conceit becomes a self-referential loop, with Shaw – musically and lyrically - stating the bleedin' obvious at patience-testing length. The "ah-ah-ah" chorus on 'Ten To One' is meant to make it anthemic, while 'Timely' is anything but - neither song develops, but neither is charismatic enough to keep you on board for long. But the final, hypnogogic sweep of the under-adorned,13-minute elegy 'All Live But The Ending' is an unlikely triumph. Having subtly worked its way through various dance beats, it steadily segues into what sounds almost like a brass fanfare, bringing the clubbing experience - from initial intoxication to distant trace memory - full circle.