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Peter Gordon - Love of Life Orchestra

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Artist: Peter Gordon

Album: Love of Life Orchestra

Label: DFA

Review date: Jan. 14, 2011

The plural spaces of early 1980s New York allowed for all kinds of mutant flowers to bloom, from the dagger-eyed Venus flytraps of No Wave, through to the lush, exotic hybrids and steamy succulents of the disco-not-disco(-not-funk-not-electro) crew. But, as the continued critical genuflection toward Arthur Russell displays, the most engaging of these cultivations remains the gentle play between high-minded composition and lower-body-stratum populism, whereby the Con was convinced to leave its strictures behind, and use those hands for light work.

Or at least, it was "light" on first glance. For as Peter Gordon’s Love Of Life Orchestra plays out, you’re reminded how hard it can be to reconcile pop and composition -- though thankfully, Gordon finds it easier than many. Gordon came out of trained composition and, like many of his peers on the New York circuit, landed in a productive no-person’s-land where you could rehearse by day and hit the discos by night, and where composing with an eye to the floor (or the charts) was an integral part of the scene’s collective conscious. With DFA’s reissue of Love Of Live Orchestra, Peter Gordon updates one track and remixes another, but mostly this collection of 12” singles, opera score and other flotsam is true to its originary era.

At its finest, it’s every bit the equal of Arthur Russell’s celebrated early disco singles, to the point where the opening “Beginning Of The Heartbreak/Don’t Don’t” almost starts at the precise point where the sessions for Dinosaur L’s “Kiss Me Again” break off, right down to the chicken-scratch, tetchy energy of David Byrne’s guitar playing. The girly chorus for “Don’t Don’t” is one of Love Of Life Orchestra‘s most joyous moments, with the poise of the operatic and the playfulness of disco and funk sited in the same vocal chords.

But the highlight of this compilation is Justine & The Victorian Punks’ “Still You” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” which glide across the floor with gait that’s equal parts seductive and regal, welcoming and sang-froid. A lot of that’s to do with the intimate, cochlea-tickling Sprechstimme of artist Colette, for whose live-in installation the tracks were commissioned. The crisp winding-up of a music-box that opens “Beautiful Dreamer” is both inspired and hilarious, as though not just the tinkling of said music-box, but also the toy-like electronics and Colette’s distracted delivery, are all an extension of the same fabulist machine.

But you also can’t deny there’s a certain starchiness to some of the music on Love Of Life Orchestra, a clumsiness that’s nowhere near as appealing as "artlessness." This doesn’t play out via particular songs, as such, but particular sections, or one rogue element of an otherwise brilliantly orchestrated party. Neither “Extended Niceties” nor “Iago’s Escape” fully work, in part because they display their cards a little too openly. This is fair, I suppose, in the case of “Iago’s Escape” (the aforementioned music for opera), but “Extended Niceties” seems uncertain of its provenance, sounding a little too much like someone trying a little too hard to be a little too "funky."

I guess that’s a risk with these kinds of genre-spanning experiments, but it’s worth noting that more often than not, Gordon gets it absolutely right. And by the time you’ve reached Arthur Russell’s bone-splintering, brutally distorted cello vamps on “That Hat,” which are more like the screeching of metal-on-metal than anything consensually musical, you know you’re on new territory. Let alone David Johansen’s surreal vocal interjections. David Johansen, Arthur Russell and Peter Gordon sharing the same reel-to-reel tape? Dreams are made of such things…

By Jon Dale

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