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Darkstar - News From Nowhere

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Artist: Darkstar

Album: News From Nowhere

Label: Warp

Review date: Feb. 4, 2013

Darkstar’s strongest moments to date have been the singles "Aidy’s Girl is a Computer" and "Gold," two very different tracks. The former is an instrumental full of thumb-piano plinks that stir a feeling of happy longing. There’s a bit of half-formed speech punctuating it, like a brief but vivid recall of a lost love’s voice. The later is a cover song from the golden age of synth pop, modernized without sounding trendy. It was among the first offerings from the production duo after they added vocalist James Buttery as a full-time member. Electronic music spends a lot of time recontextualizing the past, isolating the familiar and transforming it. Direct reinterpretation is rare. Darkstar didn’t abandon the stiffness inherent in Human League, but they moved it away from the vocals to a pocket-watch rhythm, allowing for Buttery to smooth through the melody. These numbers stand on either side of a divide — "Aidy" feels like club music that only reveals its heart with close listening, "Gold" is a pop song with the solemn drive of the Hyperdub stable.

When it comes to crossing over, News From Nowhere has passed the ridge and is well down the other side. This is a set of Pet Sound electronics, the kind that blossomed in the public consciousness with Merriweather Post Pavilion, if still as precisely coded as their early work. Buttery harmonizes with himself, and his timbre is pretty close to the Wilson family vocal chords. "A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work" is where it’s most overt, and all is gentle and surfy but for some industrial snares. The final track, "Hold Me Down," brings in a string quartet under ambient chimes, a seamless blend of natural and synthesized voices with no percussion at all. While News From Nowhere’s cover art would seem to reference Power, Corruption & Lies, there’s nothing here that suggests New Order’s mix of misery, pop gloss and danceability. This is all gloss, with a melancholy sheen, but nothing that claws very hard.

That makes for beautiful but transparent listening. It’s odd. These tracks aren’t a radical evolution from the album cuts on North, but on that record there was enough wheeze to the keyboards and digital interference on the singing to bring out a dark radiance. On News, percussion may come from drum machines, but almost every other texture evokes the analog pallet, even if it might be painted with circuits. This recipe works magnificently precisely once: "Armonic" puts all the layers under “Strawberry Fields” flange, and the acoustic loops circulate in and out of phase. There’s less songwriting than on some of the other tracks, but the arrangement has an energy that suggests they were excited to stumble upon some unintended effects. The rest of this album feels more calculated. The tracks fall short of having memorable refrains, so we’re left with something that lacks both the rhythmic connection of dance music and the obvious emotional address of pop or rock. You can sense what Darkstar wants to create — music that’s genre-less, accessible yet mysterious — but they haven’t found a way to compensate for the rougher finishes they’ve stripped from their work.

By Ben Donnelly

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