That Eighties Show

Grittier than "Sex Dwarf": Playgroup's Trevor Jackson
Courtesy of Astralwerks

Remember Short Circuit's busted-up robo-comedian making the self-affirming proclamation "Number Five is alive!"? No? Well, that A.I. forerunner still makes the best metaphor for the Eighties sound: It's a lovable hunk of junk, but it's becoming increasingly animated. Proof? See the unapologetic retro-fetishism of Daft Punk, Les Rhythms Digitales, and the oncoming horde of electro stars (Miss Kitten, Felix da Housecat, Peaches). Or better yet, see the new, improved, and delightfully same-as-ever Kylie Minogue comeback.

Nothing, however, has come close to the orgiastic retro heights of skinny-tie crunk scaled by the U.K.'s Playgroup on their self-titled release. A project album with a confusingly massive cast of contributors (all assembled under the direction of British club connoisseur Trevor Jackson), Playgroup swings with the same debauched sashay of Soft Cell, only with extra added dirt. (Imagine out-griming the twisted minds who produced "Sex Dwarf." I know, I didn't think it could be done either.)

But Playgroup isn't so much revivalism as acutely aware revisionism--and yes, in this case, that's a good thing. As with synth-pop practitioners Adult, Playgroup sport a specifically pomo brand of hyper-nostalgia: The Eighties, era of Reagan and Dallas, becomes The Eighties, culture of cocaine and dope-lookin' boomboxes. The album rides upon a fake, glittery, 4/4 pulse, extending the moment when disco became electro into a glorious simulacrum that's resolutely stupider than anything the Eighties themselves ever coughed up. Combine this with the fact that Jackson's ears are open to even the most uncool sound sources, and you've got a recipe for decadent dance music. (Jackson claims, on the Playgroup Web site, to have felt things "click into place" after hearing Afrika Bambaataa mix Prince's "When Doves Cry" into the Tears for Fears platter "Shout.")

Really, how could you not love an album bold enough to throw in a saxophone solo (which sounds like it was last spotted on some pre-short-hair Michael Bolton disc) amid the electro-dub of "Make It Happen"? Or a disco/house/old-skool hip-hop homage ("Front 2 Back") featuring the rap "Someone tell me where the party at/ Where the place is live and the hot girls are at/Where this dog can find himself a hot kitty cat"?

Yet dig deeper and behind this sweaty set lie some pretty experimental sonics. Is that really Kathleen Hanna--the first lady of riot grrrl and ringleader for proto-techno terrorists Le Tigre--dishing out her characteristically harsh vocals on the Slits-sampling "Bring It On"? And is the Edwyn Collins listed in the liner notes as a vocalist and guitarist really the same Edwyn Collins who played with Glaswegian cult rockers Orange Juice? Such genre-sampling--which even extends to a turntable guest-stint by electro legend Davy DMX--becomes more comprehensible when you consider Jackson's diverse musical past: He has spent time designing hip-hop sleeves for Stereo MCs and the Jungle Brothers, producing blunted-out trip-hop as Underdog, and running the experimentally tinged Output label, home of Fourtet and Boy Lucas.

Luckily, Jackson's skill as a producer transforms the mix of influences into a righteously steaming mélange rather than a postmodern mess. And things only cool down with his ill-advised reggae remake of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"--really, you gotta draw the line somewhere. Yet embarrassing pseudo-reggae aside, Playgroup's pleasure-positive music proves that, just like you always hoped, the truly lame people were the ones who didn't dance at the junior high school parties.

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