Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Is It Dark in Here, or Is It Ladytron?

Music Review: Ladytron, Velocifero (Nettwerk)

Just like the cover of their latest studio effort, Velocifero, electro-pop purveyors Ladytron just keep getting darker and darker. At this rate, you’ll need infrared goggles just to listen to them soon. Where past tracks like "Evil" were almost deceptively poppy, Velocifero finds Ladytron painting a relentlessly glossy black canvas.

Opening track "Black Cat" sets the nocturnal scene with synthesizer notes twinkling like distant stars, only to be quickly eclipsed by grinding guitar chords and pounding drum beats. After that, Mira Aroyo emerges from the swirling mix like… well, a black cat. Eerie Bulgarian vocals round out the picture, accentuating Ladytron’s icy European image and foreboding aura.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Bulgarian, so I have no idea what’s being sung. The lyrics could be "My feet smell like Combos," and it would still sound exotic and deep to an uncultured boob like me. It probably doesn’t matter though, because specific lyrical content seems to take a backseat to the overall mood of Ladytron’s songs.

Once "Black Cat" has caught the listener’s attention, Velocifero proceeds to pull the listener deeper into its inky vortex. Minor keys and off-kilter chord changes abound - I don’t think there’s one song here that starts off with a major chord - and Ladytron draws upon a variety of influences to weave a velvety tapestry of electro, new wave, pop, rock, psychedelia, and even industrial.

"Ghosts," the first single, comes hot on the high-heels of "Black Cat" and boasts a smooth, infectious chorus, as all first singles worth their weight in ectoplasm should. For some reason, it sort of sounds like "Destroy Everything You Touch" turned on its head, but hey, that was a great song and we all like trying new positions from time to time, right? The militaristic drumming and creepy soloing don’t hurt things, either.

After that, it’s time for "I’m Not Scared" (of ghosts and black cats, presumably) which comes barreling out of the speakers like their previous single "Sugar" with a bad-ass new engine mounted on its hood. Why this song was not chosen as the second single as opposed to the decent, but rote and over-long "Runaway" is beyond me. "Season of Illusions" has a distinctly Roxy Music vibe (think "Chance Meeting" or "Sea Breezes"), while "Burning Up," sounds like Nine Inch Nails trying to give Tears for Fears some much-needed balls.

The only real misstep here is "Predict the Day" with its X-Files-ish whistling and a thumping beat which makes me desperately want to fight the future.

But wait! Saving what is arguably the two best cuts for last, Ladytron hits us with the one-two punch of "Tomorrow" and "Versus" before calling it a day and hightailing it back to their ice-beds, or wherever it is they go at night. "Tomorrow" features an enchanting chorus brimmin’ with lots of reverb and retro-80’s goodness. It’s almost enough to make you pull out your old Pet Shop Boys albums. Still, as good as "Tomorrow" is, it’s merely a warm up (ice up?) for what comes next…

"Versus" is clearly meant to be the epic closer. Impassive female vocals counterpoint fragile Andy-Partridge-ish male vocals and give the track an added sense of melancholia and depth. Meanwhile, dreamy "ooo" vocals drone away in the background and nervous organ licks skitter across the mix. It’s a sublime moment, and possibly a herald of even better things to come from these guys.

Thank goodness darker doesn’t always mean oppressive and depressing; by going "darker" on Velocifero, Ladytron’s future just got even brighter.

*** ½ (three-and-a-half out of five stars)

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