Saturday, December 26, 2009

Miss Kittin & The Hacker - First Album (Original TC Review)

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Emperor Norton: Cat. # ENR 7052-2
Released 2004

Track List:
1. Life On MTV (4:22)
2. Frank Sinatra (3:54)
3. Walk On By (5:04)
4. 1982 (5:17)
5. Stock Exchange (5:22)
6. You And Us (4:25)
7. Flexibility (6:25)
8. L'Homme Dans L'Ombre (4:15)
9. Slow Track (2:55)
10. Nurse (5:13)
11. Stripper (4:58)
12. DJ Song (3:03)
13. Walking In The Sunshine (5:14)
14. Frank Sinatra (2001) (4:55)
15. Stock Exchange (Adamsky Remix) (6:32)

(2010 Update:
I never did strike up a conversation with the sexy business women...)

IN BRIEF: Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

What is it about seemingly unproduced EDM that instantly conjures up the 80s? Simply put, because such sounds were created, and thus heavily used, in that era, the images associated with the decade have a tendency of springing to mind. In addition, because electronic production has improved by leaps and bounds since those early, innocent years, the notion of making any music with such dated technology seems absurd unless you are deliberately making music in tribute to the era.

Such seemed to be the main draw of the emergence of electroclash and disco punk at the turn of the century. With its raw, tinny, primitive soundscapes, one could not help but draw comparisons to 80's music, allowing trendy hipsters to enjoy it, in the very least, on an ironic level. But one can only push their tongue in their cheek for so long before it pokes right through. The whole scene died a quick death, with indie rockers picking up the pieces to create a new wave of, er, new wave bands.

That electroclash sputtered out isn't all that surprising; most EDM micro-scenes normally have a lifespan of two to three years, depending on how quickly talentless hacks flood the market with piss-poor knock-offs. However, looking back on it, what's quite surprising is that a great number of these acts that spearheaded the whole movement managed to create such catchy music with the barest of musical production, an almost knee-jerk punkish reaction to the over-the-top theatrics of the most popular EDM of the time, trance (specifically of the Dutch variety).

Take Miss Kittin & The Hacker. The music on their first album is EDM stripped down to its most raw elements of 808 rhythms, analogue synths, and bubbly acid bass. Meanwhile, Miss Kittin's lyrics are delivered in a rather emotionless monotone of the barest substance. At the time of its initial release in 2001 (and even earlier with a few singles off here), First Album was the perfect antidote to all the pretentious bombast causing several EDM scenes to suffocate on their own self-importance. Four years on, however, music scenes seemed to have clued in and a wave of tighter song writing with less emphasis on over-production has taken over. Has Miss Kittin & The Hacker's collaborative debut managed to hold its own and remain relevant in a sea of copycats? Let's take a listen and see.

The album doesn't waste any time with pleasantries. Life On MTV jumps right into raw, simple percussion and ugly synths playing a simple, bleak melody. When this isn't going on, Miss Kittin (real name Caroline Herve) takes over with robotic spoken words regarding, well, life on America's music station I guess. This is an incredibly sparse track but The Hacker (real name Michael Amato) manages to fill in the gaps with just enough resonance to suck you in, if only briefly. However, Life On MTV is as good a gauge for this album, as nearly the rest of the songs follow this production technique. If you don't get much out of this opener, chances are you won't get much later either.

Not with Frank Sinatra, though. Even if you despise the musical aspect of it (which is rather minimal, really), you can't help but laugh at the lyrics, "Suck my dick/Lick my ass." I mean, c'mon! The fact it's delivered by a woman is enough to incite giggles by itself, but when said in such a sincere method, you're going to get instant sing-a-long satisfaction from a crowd. And the fact it appeals to whom can relate to this song's theme of decadent celebrity behavior, and those who like to mock such people, you have a guaranteed hit on your hands. Shame it took nearly four years for people to catch on.

Walk On By continues the thread of living the fa-beau-lussM life as an ode to catwalk modeling. While Miss Kittin's heavily distorted lyrics aren't much to get excited about (they sound about as enthused as the expressions on some of those model's faces, which is the point I suppose), this is definitely a cool sounding track despite its repetitiveness. Those synthetic tinging hi-hats never fail to please ardent techno fans.

As one of the first singles the duo produced, 1982 still holds up remarkably well thanks to some funky rhythms but I'm just not feeling it quite as much as these last two tracks. I guess the electro vibes and kitschy lyrics are already starting to sound too same-y despite the fun themes present. There are some nice synth sounds on this track but compared to what's to follow, they really don't stand out all that much.

Especially compared to the ones on the next track, Stock Exchange. Do they sound old? Sure, but that's the absolute beauty of these synth chords. It's amazing despite their rather cold sound that they can contain such a rich range of warmth. They wonderfully complement the song's tale of an escort's sad life pleasing businessmen (one interpretation, anyways). The rhythm's quite perky as well with offbeat bass quite typical in trance music. In fact, Stock Exchange is something I'd be more willing to call "electro trance", far more than what normally gets branded as such.

Alright, time for a slight tangent here as I tell a little story relating to this song. While Stock Exchange may be about an escort, sometimes I can't help but think of it in a more literal sense, as about an actual woman working on Wall Street, and sick of the rat-race it involves. Why? On the bus I take home from work, sometimes I see this one particular woman who fits the description of the character from Miss Kittins lyrics, including a pink business suit! When I first heard Stock Exchange, this woman was sitting beside me on the bus, which I could not help but think it was strangely coincidental. Sure, you see familiar faces all the time when you take the same bus routes almost daily, and I'd seen this businesswoman countless times before. But to have her sit down beside me as Stock Exchange is playing? Strange. Oh, and to answer the obvious questions: yes, this woman is rather lovely; no, she's probably ten to twenty years my senior; and no, despite sharing the same bus on occasion, I've never actually talked to her before as I'm usually worn out from work anyways. Hmm maybe I should change that one day...

Oh, yeah. This review. Um, let's get back to it, shall we?

The duo take a bit of a departure from the style that opened the album up with the next couple of tracks. Instead of aloof observations about pop culture, Miss Kittin takes the opportunity to talk about the pair themselves while Amato's synth chords get darker and de-tuned. You And Us and Flexibility are very similar in this regard, as they are strictly dancefloor material without much emphasis on lyrical content. The same could be said about L'Homme Dans L'Ombre, although my French is pathetic, so I really haven't a clue what Kittin's going on about for half this breakbeat-ish song. Despite the similarity to these songs, I quite enjoy the synths. Yeah, I'm a sucker for analogue synths. Sue me.

The three song run of murky dance beats ends with Slow Track, as much of a filler track as I've ever heard since nothing much of interest happens here. Even Kittin can't seem to think of anything interesting to say to complement this one. Perhaps it's workable for a downtempo set in a pinch but there's plenty of better material to be had out there. I guess Amato wanted to show he could do more than just dancey songs?

Enough with the gloom, you say? How about some tracks with a little more zest then? Nurse and Stripper certainly are more playful to listen to and Miss Kittin gets more involved than simple droning. Nurse especially should please those looking for more of a return to the subject matter in the earlier portions of the album.

On this 2004 edition, one of three bonus tracks is featured next in DJ Song. Something of a B-Side, I guess Emperor Norton figured they might as well include it on the re-issues. It's not too bad of a song, baring similarities to Life On MTV (but then, don't most of these anyway?) but doesn't add much to the plate either. I'd imagine it's to the DJ culture what Frank Sinatra is to the celebrity culture.

Walking In The Sunshine is as pleasant a song as this album is going to have, providing an optimistic outlook on life after all the self-loathing (intentional or acted) filled to the rim with all the desolate soundscapes. On the original release of First Album, it was a nice capper to end on but we get a couple more bonus tracks on the 2004 edition, both remixes of the top hits.

Frank Sinatra (2001) is basically a revamping of the original to make it more club friendly when this music was blowing up big. Miss Kittin also cranks up the snootiness of her dialogue, making it even more fun to sing along to than before. The Adamsky (also known as Adamski to the old-schoolers) remix of Stock Exchange is wonderful. Taking the heartrending theme of the original and running with it, the song sounds even more tragic than ever before. Little guitar strums harmonize with a frailer sounding Miss Kittin (who re-sung the lyrics and by sung, I do mean she actually sings this time) while the fills in between get funkier and dirtier. In particular, this track stands out from the rest because it's so much more different.

Yeah, that's the thing about this whole First Album. Aside from a few standout poppy hits, the similarities of all these tracks will please fans of this style of music, and bore the rest. Since I like it, the ranking here goes up a little. If you don't, it'll go down a little more for you. More variety would have been nice but it's solid enough for what we get.

As for whether Miss Kittin & The Hacker's debut has dated four years later, I'd give my answer as a definite no. After all, the sound on First Album was dated to begin with. It isn't going to date any more but considering the current trend of infusing dated sounds in EDM to give them more grit, it may just be one of the most modern sounding releases around.

Score: 7/10

Stock Exchange
Frank Sinatra (2001)

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2005 for© All rights reserved.

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