February 8, 2011
After many listens and much contemplation, I think I’ve numbed my mind to the cheesy qualities of Cut/Copy’s new album Zonoscope to dive into why I really do not like it as much as most will (plus I’ve had this thing for a month, thanks to the band’s PR company giving me a sneak peek, and today is release day already!).
I will admit that these Australian synth-poppers know how to make some catchy pop music. With their third full-length album, the band’s sound continues to grow slicker. Still, with this growth, a piece of Cut/Copy’s soul continues to drift away. They used to sound much more interesting: a kaleidoscopic electro outfit with leanings to meandering psychedelia, recalling the hippie disco of the Chemical Brothers. But now comes an album that sounds like it emerged from a time capsule sealed since 1986.
Zonoscope arrives on the heels of much anticipation, as their last album, 2008’s In Ghost Colours, saw them breaking out to much critical and popular notoriety. But I also found that album a mostly cold experience compared to 2004’s Bright Like Neon Love. At least that debut album came across as a witty send-up of the dance pop/new wave era of the eighties, and the shtick is getting old. Now Cut/Copy seem a bit too icky in love with that sound. Despite all the buzz that followed it, for me, In Ghost Colours had only a couple of outstanding songs worth noting: “Unforgettable Season” and “So Haunted,” and the album grew stale quick. That second album definitely foreshadowed a direction turning away from the psychedelic wit of their debut and toward a colder, more sincere and, in effect, dated disco sound. Of course, Zonoscope continues that trend, and it will probably be embraced by many. However, will it be a classic touchstone in alt-rock? Probably not. It’s all too derivative of a pop scene that died a long time ago for good reason, and Cut/Copy explore that sound without a trace of irony and an almost fetishistic affection.
After repeated listens (the first of which left me dumbfounded with horror by just how retro, soulless and sort of embarrassing to my aesthetic sensibility the album sounded), I feel a bit more comfortable to take a closer look at how this young group of musicians, who must have been babes in the eighties, captures that era’s pop music so expertly. They truly seem to relish in the aesthetic of new wave pop artists like Erasure, Level 42, Talk Talk and Information Society. Singer/main songwriter/instrumentalist Dan Whitford channels the period with masterful skill. His deep, affected vocals sound more than ever like those of post-new romantic blue-eyed soulsters of that era. Breathy, deep and elastic, his voice ranges from falsetto to baritone, not unlike Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore.
It fits well with the airy drum machines and cheesy synths that permeate Zonoscope. According to the press material included with the advance copy of the album I received, the album is the result of the band playing with “piles of vintage studio equipment and instruments.” It certainly worked to produce an album that could fit comfortably on late-eighties pop radio or MTV.
But Zonoscope, for the most part, seems to relish in late eighties new wave a little too much for my taste. I don’t know if the dudes in Cut/Copy grew up listening to the radio in the mid to late eighties, but anyone with serious alt-rock sensibilities in those times knows that was the era new wave died on the top of the pop charts. New wave is the waste left by the pioneers of the post punk world of the late seventies and early eighties. Modern English went from singles like the ethereal noise of “Gathering Dust” to the long overplayed “I Melt With You,” their single definitive hit. Even pioneers like Roxy Music sacrificed their glam rock edge for the light bounce of synthesizers that defined dreck like Avalon. That was also the era David Bowie sold his soul by following up the progressive Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) with Let’s Dance, and those are only the horrors observed of the early eighties. The decade grew more putrid for pop radio as the years rolled on, until the anger of the Pixies, Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana exorcised those demons at the end of that era.
With all this cynicism informing my aesthetic principles when it comes to today’s modern rock, here comes Cut/Copy with Zonoscope. So pardon if when I hear the opening cut, “Need You Now” (thankfully not to be confused with the even more banal hit by current pop act Lady Antebellum) unfold with layering melodies that seems to mimic LCD Soundsystem (a much cooler retro-informed band) but without a sense of patient, soulful groove. It instead builds on the mechanical timing of adding one layer after another in all too perfectly timed sequences. After a fake, electro stuttering “drum” fill, Whitford starts singing, “Hush, darling, don’t you cry/Hush, darling, don’t you cry” as the song perkily bounds along, and so begins the eye-roll worthy lyrical schlock that not only permeates this album but also the late eighties. There are coos and doo-wops throughout that cloy throughout “Need You Now” that seems to linger too long at just over six minutes.
“Take me over” features more annoying silly lines like “Take me over/Take me under” and some “Ooo, oo, oooooo”s in between on a bouncy beat that recalls the swishy quality of “I go I go I go” by the Wave Machines, another current act with a retro new wave vibe. Synth chords that many once worried would replace string sections when they seemed to dominate pop songs in the mid-eighties honk throughout the song. When “Take me over” breaks down, Cut/Copy cue up the samples of jungle sounds with birds cawing and a monkey howling. Maybe they are not taking themselves all that seriously. I don’t know. It just all sounds too clichéd to me and such an unworthy style of music to revisit. It is the most dated, disposable kind of pop there is, the equivalent of Britney Spears nowadays.
I had high hopes as “Take Me Over” faded away and “Where I’m Going” began. The sound of railroad cars and whoosh of some unintelligible backward vocals hover above tribal beats and as one song swells into a spacey sparkle several guitars join in and groove along to a tambourine beat at the start of the next. It’s almost like the old Chemical Brothers influence had reappeared, but it lasts only a few seconds. Then the song switches gears to perky sing-song: “Take my hand if you know what I’m going through … Ooo, ooo,ooo, whoah-oh, yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” It bobs along blissfully but vapidly on a syncopated beat. Several tracks later there is little relief of this too cute love for new wave.
I will admit that there is at least one track I honestly like on Zonoscope: “Alisa.” Sure, it’s a simple clichéd title with a chick’s name. I should have hated it, but the band explore the song with just the right amount of dense layering and vocals that obscure the lyrics just enough. It starts stupid enough with shakers and a simple beat and a guitar line that begins like an Echo & the Bunnymen track but then falls apart nicely as synths ring, zip and sparkle in the background. The chorus begins with stings from an honest-to-goodness-sounding string section before the song returns to the Bunnymen guitar line. It’s simple, but the extra amorphous guitar effects and synth noise are obtuse enough to keep the song interesting and rewarding to repeat listens.
But that’s the highlight for me on Zonoscope. There is even a 15-minute-plus closer that I had high hopes for, but it just turns out dull and uninspired.
As far as Cut/Copy’s Miami connection with this blog. They will apparently play a major role at the Ultra Music Festival in Downtown Miami, hitting one of the dance festival’s main stages (it’s their third time at the fest). With that show Cut/Copy kick off a month-long North American tour. Brooklyn’s Holy Ghost will join them on most of their tour dates, which will proceed as follows:
26 – Miami, FL @ Ultra Music Festival
28 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade *
29 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club *
31 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Trocadero *
02 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5 *
04 – Boston, MA @ House of Blues *
05 – Montreal, QC @ Club Soda *
07 – Toronto, ON @ Sound Academy
08 – Chicago, IL @ Riviera *
09 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue *
12 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox Sodo *
15 – Indio, CA @ Coachella Music Festival (Empire Polo Grounds)
16 – San Francisco, CA @ The Grand Ballroom *
20 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater *
22 – Austin, TX @ Stubbs BBQ *
23 – New Orleans, LA @ Republic *
*w/ Holy Ghost