Buy the album then go to the show; but don’t let Dave Shuey catch you standing still.
From New Order to The Rapture, punk bands and their puritan fans have attempted that clunky electric slide into dance music. To mixed results. Le Funk, VHS or Beta’s Daft Punk-influenced indie debut provided an overdose of guitar funk to get booties moving. Yet for the PBR lager-gulpers whose static laps this disc landed, it was more like “Le ... eh?”
The 2002 album was a confusing pill for the cooler-than-thou to swallow. That’s understandable. Albums have to stand on their own. Even Louisville-based VHS or Beta band members admit the house-influenced release missed its artistic and commercial window. Le Funk was 100% disco ball shimmer, retro and daring – almost no vocals to be found, nor easy explanation. Taken on its own, its pre-New Wave sound was either an exercise in irony or all-out homage to Studio 54.
The real test is taking the coked-up sound into clubs and seeing if a) the band nails it without studio help; and b) if scrupulous (and might I add, catatonic) audiences meet the songs half-way.
I was dragged into such an experiment on a 2002 summer Thursday at Seattle’s famed Graceland (formerly the grunge dive, The Off Ramp). My in-the-know friend Dave raved about buzz makers I Am the World Trade Center, who opened for VHS or Beta. I was oblivious to both groups. To my chagrin, I Am the World Trade Center’s sweet Euro-dance lyricism and bubbly energy couldn’t rivet the demure bouquet of 40 white-belt types – their signature Blondie cover “Call Me” was welcome, yet rosy hips remained as stiff as the vodka tonics.
Then VHS or Beta appeared and it happened. One. Continuous. Danceable. Sound. Witnessing blazing disco machinery coming from a traditional rocker quartet, featuring guitarists Craig Pfunder and Zeke Buck, bassist Mark Palgy, and drummer Mark Guidry, left my mouth agape and round ass a-shaking.
VHS or Beta was a spectacle – a truly original moment in time. With dueling guitars streaming sounds worthy of ‘70s-era studio DJ tracks, one thought circulated the collective air: “Are they really jamming out one live disco groove for 30 minutes straight?” Yes, Ringo with the farmer’s cap, they are.
And still: No dancing. Was the discotronic experiment flawed? Perhaps it was low audience numbers. Or there was cross over for the Trans Am / !!! / Pines of Nowhere show the next night, and thighs and feet needed rest. Not likely.
Nope, in this social test, it’s the control group. If there’s a billboard, it reads, “Modern City Kids Don’t Dance to Rock.” Even if the music breaks new ground. It’s a sad sign of the times. Staunch rock fans (predominately white) turned electronic wannabes always face such genre-bending dilemmas: Is it a joke, or do I go with it? Do I keep staring at my girlfriend’s shoes, or do I ignore everyone else and just dance?
This is an eternal gripe that I passed along to everyone from World Trade Center’s Amy Dykes that very night (an angel who answers her email) to Deathcab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard at The Thermal’s show days before I left Seattle late May 2004.
(And coincidentally, seeing both a Trans Am and !!! show in Chicago restored a modicum of faith in audience’s ability to “let it go” – although I’m sure alcohol-induced bravado has something to do with it. People are afraid to look stupid, I suppose.)
Fortunately there are bands like VHS or Beta to inspire the oft-confused electro-clash crowd. Now reaching new milestones on their Astralwerks debut Night On Fire (We have vocals! We have songs! We have a pop future!), VHS or Beta dare to breath PR statements such as a musical kinship with Duran Duran and get away with it. Even their first single “Night on Fire” borrows more from Simon LeBon than any Bee Gee, dead or alive. Time will tell if VHS or Beta remain under the cult radar alongside United State of Electronica and Particle (and their dance fan worshipers, see www.partiplepeople.com) – or take a page from Joy Division’s ashes and “GET DOWN on their knees and pray” New Order-style.
Now if somebody can only get the fucking hipsters to dance.
Dance Quotient off
eponymous single: 8.0. Album, 7.0/10. Review by David Shuey