In the BBC documentary Synth Britannia, Phil Oakey of the Human League acknowledges the debt every synth-pop band owes to Kraftwerk, but quickly points out that his real influence was “I Feel Love.” Though in the same sonic ballpark, Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder couldn’t be further apart conceptually; the genius of the Human League and their ilk was acknowledging cold, mechanical futurism while channeling it toward the main goal: ecstatic, danceable pop. The highs would have been impossible without the obscured seriousness and experimentalism underneath.
Remove history, purpose and the physicality of build-your-own-synth fun from the equation and you’re left with the garbled genre haze of the modern “glo-fi” scene. Attitude in search of songs, brains in search of ideas: rather than convey determination, the new pop makers are content to mash their nostalgias into balls and hope they don’t fall apart. Nite Jewel and the Thriller collective spring to mind as folks that somehow pull rabbits out of the hat, but that probably has something to do with the ultra-fetishism of their sound designs. Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memory Tapes, and now Toro Y Moi, a.k.a. Chaz Bundick, are way more relaxed, and, consequently, just float away. Is there a “Being Boiled” in any of them? I doubt it. To drive the point home, I think that J Dilla, an oft-cited influence on the scene, could have made a “Being Boiled.”
There’s nothing really wrong about making disposable, good times lite-funk. If one of these tracks pops up in a mix or on the radio, I’ll doubtless nod my head. Causers of This is a perfectly OK album, but it suffers from the same problems that Bundick ran into with his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” last summer: it’s just too nice. NKOTB’s “Hangin Tough” hits harder than the closing track, ostensible banger “Causers of This.” Bundick occasionally turns the energy up, like in the last 30 seconds of album highlight “Low Shoulders,” but those moments are too few and far between to make an impact.
Oddly enough, I think Lady Gaga and tracks like C.H.A.O.S. Productions’ fantastic Ke$ha/Cyndi Lauper mash-up “Ke$ha Just Wants to Have Fun” are more attuned to the spirit of glo-fi’s ’80s influences than most of its practitioners. If Gaga and C.H.A.O.S. ignore the experimental underpinnings and most of the nuance, at least they get the ultimate point: bright, brash, electronic, ecstatic, danceable pop.