Sunday, April 11, 2010

Information Society (1988)

(Tommy Boy)


If you grab the first person you know with a general knowledge of 1980s pop music and ask what he or she thinks of Information Society, you're likely to be told they were a Midwestern cash-in on the wild popularity of two of the then-biggest bands in the world, Depeche Mode and Talking Heads, taking advantage as a bonus of the Heads' inactivity by the latter part of the decade. They'll remember -- and possibly be nostalgic for -- the biggest hit, "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," and might even remember one or two of the followups, but that's likely the only penetration the Minneapolis group will have achieved. The U.S. charts don't give you much else to go on, either. And experts and critics, even those who follow synthpop and dance music pretty heavily, aren't likely to have much of an opinion. But I discovered in that last couple of years that, somewhat surprisingly, Information Society are a group that is worshipped and spoken of with amazed reverence among a very specific group: DJs. They live on in considerable significance if only in this fashion, much like their labelmates Naughty by Nature. The first couple of Information Society albums are widely considered, today more than ever, a DJ's best friend, and dance music masterworks.

Listening to this album again, the reasons are obvious. With the lone exception of the errant ballad "Repetition," a song that doesn't deserve to share the vinyl with the other nine, every track is immediate, fast-paced, and muscular; you don't have to know what the fuck it is to respond to it. The innovations are striking: they sample other media in a rhythmic manner I don't believe anyone else was tackling yet (and not many others have since, though the Books seem pretty proficient at it). Their seamless, utterly nonchalant integration of rap and Latin traditions is breathtaking now and I find it hard to believe it wasn't then.

The first half of the album keeps this on the down-low and fairly conservative, but it still has some excellent conventional dance-synthpop such as the emotional "Walking Away" and the Pet Shop-infected "Lay All Your Love on Me." I even like the power move "Tomorrow," which could've been a Eurythmics song. But it's on side two that things get moving and the group starts to go a bit mad. I played every one of these songs in blocks of '80s music on various nights DJing and they fit seamlessly with better-known material. Even the experimental one-minute closer "Make It Funky" was useful as a way in or out of something, and I have heard it at least twice played by others (and it points the way to some of Daft Punk's voice manipulating nine years or so later).

I guess what I find most remarkable about these songs is that they are unapologetic beat-driven dance music; the intellectual pursuits the band name might suggest appear nowhere, and yet they play nearly as well on headphones, where the rhythmic sidesteps and stereo tricks have an insanely modern seductive power. "Over the Sea," to begin with, is aurally huge, and confidently propulsive, a top-drawer kick in the gut where you least expect it. "Attitude" somehow fuses Art of Noise with blues-rock, and does it brilliantly. "Something in the Air" adds mysterioso vocal distortion and amps up the classic artistic power move of pulling in uncommercial ingredients to make pop music that falls on the ear perfectly. And for all of these songs, the pulsing forward and the late-night caffeinated beat are unrelenting.

The record's best cut might be its penultimate, which saw earlier life as the Society's debut single. "Running" is seven minutes of radical kitchen sink disco, going farther in Latin inflections than any other cut, offering up an achingly hungry-to-be-sampled electro hip hop backing, and jumping off the cliff of sanity in a way as convincingly devoted as when the Velvet Underground used to do the same thing on songs like "The Murder Mystery." "Running" takes you to the edge of the body-movement world and dares you not to fall. Only Daft Punk puts more batshit balls-to-the-wall head-explosive synth-drum-bass-sampling onslaughts into the mainstream now, and god knows if anyone did then.

The accusations that the group ripped off Talking Heads are rooted in nonsense; Tommy Boy seems to have attempted to sell the band's image in this way with the self-consciously quirky music videos (and perhaps even the touting of both bands featuring a female member, which evidently was a much bigger deal in 1988 than it would be now). The "What's On Your Mind" video, though very appealing, is pretty derivative. But little, polyrhythms excepted, in the music recalls Talking Heads, who were influenced heavily by disco and dance music but never really attempted it. And the Heads, as the same malcontented press moaned a few years earlier (and as the same malcontented press moaned even earlier about Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, and today about Vampire Weekend), did not invent polyrhythms. The Depeche Mode comparisons, meanwhile, are inevitable because of the vocals, but for one thing, everyone who made synthpop or dance music in the '80s ripped off Depeche Mode; for another, Mode sidestepped soul and directness in favor of melodrama and irony, and I don't recall them having any of these simple pleasures and simple quirks and, hey, Latin-infected rhythms and hip hop influences. And in the end, Harland seems to mean what he says, and part of the point of DM is you never really know what they mean.

I personally was glad to discover there was still some sort of a fondness for this band, as I've always been pretty impressed by them and was never sure why. One of the things I particularly love is Kurt Harland's voice (he sings all but one of the vocal tracks), which is a bit technically stronger than that of most male singers in this genre -- think Dave Gahan after his vocal training in 1997 -- and seems weathered with wit and emotion. I also like that they underline the arbitrary separation of synthpop and dance music by casting off the strained seriousness of most acts in the former category but also feeling no need to bring in layers of irony to gloss over their fun. They're really a dance group dabbling in every cutting-edge style of the time that just integrates a few synthpop ideas. None of the trappings and pretensions of impression-making are here; this is people who love music making music, which is timeless. If only there'd been more popular groups like Information Society (and Fine Young Cannibals) at the time, maybe dance music would be taken more seriously now, as it's long deserved to be. And who else in America wasn't afraid of this kind of music then? Even the people who said they weren't were. Or else we'd have more to show for it.

Over the Sea
Something in the Air

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