Morgan Geist’s Luscious Disco, Just In Time for the Death of Bottle Service

That anyone who casually follows New York electronic music knows the name Morgan Geist is a huge testament to the man’s talent: The Environ Records founder has released just two solo albums in 10 years, opting to work mainly behind the scenes as a DJ, remixer, and producer. As much as any single person, though, he’s responsible for this decade’s embrace of disco.

Whereas the work for which Geist is probably best known, his 2002 collaboration with Darshan Jesrani and Kelley Polar under the alias Metro Area, was hard-hitting, elemental, and exuberant, his new Double Night Time is a relatively introspective affair. It’s also more satisfying as headphone fodder, thanks largely to a phalanx of synthesizers (burbling arpeggios cushion most tracks) and vocals from Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, who sounds less chilly than usual here amid scads of high-gloss synth hooks. But the mood is rarely lighthearted. On tracks like “Ruthless City,” which drags house’s telltale jazzy chords down to codeine speed, craftsmanship undercuts playfulness undercuts melancholy.

The album appropriates well-worn sonic ideas of the city (including the fantastical palettes of Giorgio Moroder and Digital Emotion) and makes them speak to the class-muddled mindfuck of New York’s latest (and now-waning) Gilded Age. But to call Geist’s music “retro” kinda misses the point. Early disco’s sonic vision of the future no better describes contemporary urban life than does Manhattan’s obscenely wealthy façade. Which is to say, I don’t think this reconsideration of disco we’re seeing is any accident—of course a music so apt at speaking to the void between appearance and reality would surge during some of the most inegalitarian years in national history.

Morgan Geist plays Santos’ Party House October 15.


Going Farming at P.S.1’s Warm-Up Parties

My drinking education came mostly along a series of gravel roads in rural Missouri. Weekend nights saw a parade of letter jackets, halter tops, and tight jeans (to be worn with cowboy boots, not Converses) spilling out of beat-up trucks and rusty Escorts. And while I actually owned none of the above—sartorial nor vehicular—I still loved being among the caravan of cars following weathered tire tracks through the country, eventually gathering under the summer sky on washed-out bridges to plow through cases of Busch Light and (no, it’s not just a stereotype) Boone’s Farm. Unsophisticated? God, yes. But it’s what you do when you grow up in a town with a population fewer than 2,500.

As a result, the setting of the recently unveiled Public Farm One—a/k/a P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s ninth annual architecture-program winner, which sets the stage for summer’s weekly Warm Up dance parties—well, it resonates.

Of 2008’s five finalists, WORK Architecture Company was the firm chosen to realize its designs for “a new urban landscape.” With a project budget of $70,000—and criteria that included elements of shade, water, seating, and bar areas—husband-and-wife founders Amale Andraos and Dan Wood eschewed the former winners’ literal party predilections for a family-friendly urban farm, plunked down right in the middle of P.S.1’s concrete courtyard in Long Island City. The gravel . . . the water . . . the greenery . . . the gravel . . . it all feels very familiar. And very much like a social scene I didn’t think I’d have to revisit in my adulthood.

For others, though, the idea of an urban harvest capitalizes on both pastoral imagery and the current obsession with sustainable and recyclable materials. P.F.1 does both—but in a visually captivating way, evoking the look of an environmentally sound magic carpet that’s landing squarely in the P.S.1 courtyard. Constructed as a honeycomb of large cardboard tubes, the top surface of the asymmetrical, V-shaped plane is a working farm, blooming with a variety of vegetables and plants (and on Friday, when the space officially opened, also providing sunny seats for a few resourceful climbers).

Benches and imaginative chairs are positioned in the shade of the farm, with curtains and fans offering more movement of air; the larger wing stretches over the courtyard’s 20-foot-high center wall to allow for additional shade in the adjacent outdoor space. Form meets function in the supportive columns as well, offering cell-phone-charging stations, pockets of herbs, and those twisty scopes that allow you to spy on people without them knowing. The plants will be harvested and sold at an accompanying farmers’ market during the parties. There’s even a pool. Yeah, it’s small—but it’s cold and wet, providing a welcome respite from the concrete pen that is the remainder of P.S.1.

Since 1999, when P.S.1 merged with MOMA and Philip Johnson designed the first party backdrop for the summer music series, each incarnation has expanded upon Warm Up’s origins as an “Urban Beach.” WORK’s initial sketches reflected that—but eventually changed radically.

As explained on the firm’s website, the beach has embodied popular dreams of pleasure and liberation throughout the 20th century, dating from the first labor-paid holidays. Thinking about that creatively led them to a 1928 photograph called La Plage, rife with blue-and-white-striped bathing suits; that, in turn, made them consider the famous slogan of the May 1968 student riots in France: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (roughly, “Under the paving stones, a better life”). Instead of creating an environment to fit a fixed idea of holiday, however, they decided instead to redefine what that idea of holiday should look like, settling on the notion of “Sur les paves, la ferme“—meaning “Over the pavement, the farm.”

Now, 40 years after the student riots, in the summer of 2008, Wood and Andraos imagine their urban farm as “a magical plot of rural delights inserted within the city grid that resonates with our generations’ preoccupations and hopes for a better and different future.” In fact, they’re calling for a new “leisure revolution . . . one that creates a symbol of liberation, knowledge, power, and fun for today’s cities.”

As to be expected—oh, you architects and all your “visions”—that sounds a hell of a lot sexier than P.F.1 actually looks. And definitely sexier than it feels—because while that flying carpet looks great, it doesn’t provide that much shade; this year’s parties are going to be motherfucking hot.

But there truly is something youthful, innocent, and charming about the whole setup, maybe because it also works as a system separate from the facilitation of Warm Up. Last Friday afternoon, there were families and couples and friends and loners, reading and talking and splashing in the fountain. I guess it just seems more useful than the pretty constructions of the past—and the idea of helping when and where we can is something we just can’t get away from these days. Especially since I don’t soon plan to give up my long showers or air conditioning.

As for this year’s lineup, which was announced last week, there’s been some grumbling—but I suspect it’s just for the sake of complaining, as usual. With the exception of the ubiquitous James Murphy, who it’s kinda hard to get excited about anymore (he’s everywhere, right?), options like Free Blood on July 12, Kelley Polar on August 16, and Matthew Dear on August 30 should bring the kids running. Warm Up parties take place from 3 to 9 p.m. every Sunday from July 5 through September 6. See for a complete lineup.


The Quarterly Report: Best Albums of 2008 Thus Far

You stand corrected

First quarters are traditionally show, and in certain respects this one was no exception. I didn’t, for instance, hear a single good rap album, though I did hear a few mixtapes worth talking about. Still, looking at my list, it’s pretty amazing how many great records I’ve heard over the past three months; 2008 is shaping up to be a year worth remembering. Apologies to Foals, Fuck Buttons, Erykah Badu, Crystal Castles, Blood on the Wall, and Young Dro, all of whom came close to making this list. It’s also worth noting that Da Beginning, the new Lil Boosie mixtape, would’ve probably ended up high on this list if I’d been able to spend a little more time with it.

1. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

Yeah, go ahead, get mad. But find me another youngish band within the entire chaotic sphere of indie-rock whose hooks are this sharply slippery, whose beats are this effortlessly, precisely sidelong, and whose sense of self is this fully realized and deeply entrenched. Even if you don’t care about the particulars of the Ivy League layabout world they profess to inhabit (and I still have basically no idea what a mansard roof is), Ezra Koenig has managed to conjure an image of that world with the same sort of artful specificity in, say, the portrait of the bullet-torn Virginia on display in this list’s #4 entry. And VW’s Afropop fixation works less as cultural imperialism than as a move away from yelpy jagged indie-rock status quo and towards the sort of angrily clever and defiantly polished early-80s new-wave sophistipop that only Spoon gets right anymore. I get the same rush from the snap back into the beat on “A-Punk” and the lovelorn half-articulate chorus on “Bryn” that I got the most well-placed and searingly self-pitying pop-punk choruses when I was 15. Another album like this one and maybe it’ll be possibly to rave about these guys without coming across defensive.


Voice review: Mike Powell on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend
Voice review: Julianne Shepherd on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend

2. Disfear: Live the Storm

So: scuzzed-up galloping old-school hardcore, all thunderous bass fuzz and claustrophobic peals of feedback and riled-up gang-chant choruses about how completely wrong the world is (with special bonus Dawn of the Dead quotes!), cranked out by a band two decades deep into this basement-show crustcore shit. Except now two fifths of this band consists of Swedish melodic death-metal legends, and they’ve got the throat-ravaging fuck-the-world screams and the triumphantly cheeseball guitar solos to prove it. Someone in my comments section compared this to NOFX, “except they sound more sober and shout a lot.” He’s right, and that’s a good thing. If you went to the sorts of VFW-hall punk shows I went to in high school, this is your superhero music. Certain nights, this album feels like it was specifically concocted in a lab to make me want to get smashed on cheap whiskey and scream incoherent cusswords at passing cop cars. If some high school kids somewhere are using Live the Storm to soundtrack dumbshit high-school hijinks, there is some justice in the world.

3. Kelley Polar: I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling

I pointed this out in an earlier entry, but the first part of this year has been absurdly rich in streaky lovestruck whiteboy synthpop and disco. What sets Kelley Polar apart from his contemporaries (Hercules & Love Affair, Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier) is also what vaults him past them, at least for me: a sense of ambition that verges on pretension. Polar is a Julliard-trained violinist and a part-time neoclassical composer whose delicate dance tracks come drowned in layers of impressionistic strings and overbearing conceptual stuff about space and art and the trancendental oversoul or whatever. This should make him unbearable, but instead it has the paradoxical approach of rendering him flawed and approachable, an actual human being rather than Hot Chip’s cartoon Urkel lovermen or Tellier’s French-pimp stereotype. Polar sings in a matter-of-fact Bernard Sumner downbeat murmur, and he renders ideas in the sort of plainspoken language that at least lets us know he’s taking them seriously. And his tracks are about lush, gorgeous disco-house of the highest order, his gushy synths and airy strings and twitching drums all pushing each other toward something bigger and dreamier.

4. The Re-Up Gang: We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 3

A few days after I wrote about this mixtape, Malice contacted me to talk about my writeup. In particular, he wanted to clarify a line I’d called cheesy. When he says, “Here I am standing with open arms like Journey,” he apparently means that he’s standing with guns, which fair enough. The line still stands as being a bit (likably) cheesy to me, but it says something that this guy cares so much about his lyrics that he’ll reach out to a writer just to make sure nobody’s misunderstanding him. I get the feeling that all three guys in this group feel the same way. These lyrics bear the marks of obsessive rewriting, lines in notepads scribbled out, rhymes tightened, everything extraneous eliminated. Mixtapes don’t get this hard vividness by accident. After enough listens, it becomes apparent that Vol. 3 isn’t quite touching the greatness of Vol. 2. The voices don’t have the same urgency, there’s a bit of Drama-sanctioned filler, and the scarcity of flipped recent beats means the tape doesn’t give that idea that these guys are twisting the best stuff on the radio to their will. But that sense of writerly competition, of four great rappers collectively pushing each other, is still very much there. And Vol. 3 has its own merits; I’ve never heard anyone describe the feelings that come when a great album flops commercially the way Malice does here. And then there’s “Scenario 2008,” where all four guys hit the ground running and never let up, one of the best things they’ve ever done.

5. Genghis Tron: Board Up the House

This one caught me by surprise. This Philly art-metal trio has been kicking around the DIY-show circuit for a minute now, cultivating a rep for fusing jittery malfunctioning-laptop IDM with mathematical grindcore, and nothing in that description looks remotely like anything I’d listen to voluntarily. But even if there’s a little blip-scream insanity at work here, Board Up the House finds them more into huge, thudding dirges with huge, terrifying Dario Argento synth-drones and bloodcurdling screams and crushing walls of stoner-metal guitar. Board Up the House is a remarkably pretty album, certainly not what I was expecting, and the way the band leaps abruptly from moody downbeat synth atmospherics to expressionist hardcore pummel carries this sense of deep sadness that I wish I could describe better. Now that Trent Reznor is no longer beholden to any major label contracts, this is the type of music I want to hear from him, not the drizzly video-game-soundtrack mush he’s currently churning out.

6-10. Black Mountain: In the Future; Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride; High Places: 03/07-09/07; Grand Buffet: King Vision; Hercules & Love Affair: Hercules & Love Affair.


Sensitive-Whiteboy Robo-Soul Will Own 2008

Kelley Polar, looking ridiculous

I keep a piece of paper thumbtacked up next to my desk where I write down every album that I liked in the past few months. The idea is that when I get around to doing my quarterly report things, I’ll have a handy little shortlist to work from. (I don’t do the same thing for singles, though God knows I probably should.) So far this year, that list has been a bit different from my usual jumble. For one thing, it’s still the beginning of the year, a traditionally slow time, and I just haven’t heard that much good stuff lately. But what’s up there breaks down pretty weirdly along genre lines: a couple of good metal albums, a few noisier picks, no rap worth mentioning until the Re-Up Gang mixtape leaked last weekend, Vampire Weekend. But one vague non-genre has dominated. For whatever reason, early 2008 is turning out to be a great time for robotic whiteboy disco-soul. Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier, Hercules & Love Affair, and Kelly Polar don’t all come from the same scene; as far as I can tell, none of them really come from any one particular scene at all. And they don’t really sound like each other; this isn’t one of those explosions of like-minded bands where everyone comes up listening to and influencing each other. But all these records share a lot. All four of those acts have associations to established dance-music entities (DFA, Daft Punk, Metro Area), and they all share a serious dancefloor affinity, but none of them really makes dance music, at least not in its most utilitarian sense. Instead, they play around with the mechanics of rhythm and melody, using them as vehicles for sweetly romantic lost-soul lamentations (sometimes ironic, sometimes not) rather than as ends unto themselves. I’m not really a dance-music guy, and I can’t speak to the efficacy of most of this stuff on actual dancefloors, but I can say without reservation that all these groups make pretty great iPod music, music that bleeds into the background beautifully into the background and lends a sort of grand pull to everything it ends up soundtracking. I wish I knew what’s causing this little mini-boom: Cold weather? Gradual bleedthrough of diluted T-Pain influence on indie-pop? An aging-urban-sophisticate version of rave nostalgia? Really, I have no fucking idea. But it’s a good thing, and I hope it lasts.

Out of all those acts, Hot Chip is by far the most established, and their Made in the Dark has been the most anticipated. In ways I’m still figuring out, it’s also the most disappointing. Part of it is the absolute remix-circuit tear Hot Chip have been on lately; their revisions of songs like Tracey Thorn’s “King’s Cross” and the Junior Boys’ “In the Morning” have been serious wounded-romantic bangers, tracks that fuse the groups twitchy heartbroken grace with their hosts’ sensibilities effortlessly. A couple of weeks back, a track they produced for the British rapper Dels made the rounds; the idea of Hot Chip making rap should be just painful, but even that came off beautifully. But Hot Chip are a group with a whole lot of ideas, and not all those ideas are good ones. Since their inception, they’ve been probably the only synthpop group in existence to operate on the Fugazi model, where the records, great as they might be, basically exist to serve as previews for the live show. Hot Chip’s live shows are things of beauty: five wormy pixeltanned Brits working up gigantic clanking laser-show bangers and then suddenly breaking for surging choruses of shocking loveliness. Advance word on Made in the Dark said that they’d finally figured out how to translate the energy of those shows to record, but it turns out not so much. Isolated moments on the album do capture that grandeur. “Touch Too Much” welds devastated vocal harmonies to jittery beats in exactly the way I’d hoped they’d do throughout this thing. “Ready for the Floor,” the single, is total twerked-out Pet Shop Boys/New Order awesomeness. “Hold On” has probably the itchiest, most restless groove they’ve yet worked up. But they haven’t yet grown out of their penchant for godawful math-club jokes, and “Wrestlers” is about the most egregious example of that nudge-nudge humor they’ve produced to dates. It’s seriously not funny when reedy-voiced dorks sing about beating you up. It’s just not. And when those jokes take the form of a laundry-list of wrestling moves, some of which I’m pretty sure don’t exist, it’s somehow even more galling. But even “Wrestling” has a gorgeous little piano bit that comes in on the chorus. Even when these guys are disappointing, there’s always something there.

There’s not always something there with Sebastien Tellier, the impressively bearded cheeseball Parisian sex-crooner whose new album, Sexuality, I still like a lot. Tellier does most of his breathy whisper-singing in French, but it’s not hard to figure out what he’s talking about, and the female moaning that shows up from time to time fills in any remaining blanks. This is total Moroder/Gainsbourg pastiche, and the amount of puerile club-kid winking sometimes drives Sexuality perilously close to Chromeo territory; I have to assume that keytaurs will figure prominently into the guy’s live show. But the level of craftsmanship on the album is just insane. It’s not in the songwriting, which really isn’t much; it’s in the actual individual sounds. A Wendy & Lisa keyboard-note will sustain just right. A buttrock guitar solo will come out pillowy and languid. The Cerrone-sounding synth arpeggios on “Sexual Sportswear” twinkle like nothing I’ve heard lately. I wasn’t there for the creation of this thing, but I have to assume that a lot of the credit for these sounds should go to the album’s producer, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Tellier and Homem-Christo appear to have taken midtempo Daft Punk pricklers like “Digital Love” as their starting point. And, as starting points go, “Digital Love” is pretty great. There’s not a lot of emotional weight to Sexuality, but sometimes emotional weight is entirely beside the point.

Earlier this week, Nick Sylvester wrote a post about the New York disco project Hercules & Love Affair where he basically dared the entire rest of the music press to jump on board with it. Well, I’m on board, mostly. And I’m on board partly because Andy Butler, the DJ behind Hercules & Love Affair, has finally found something worthwhile to do with Antony. Antony, of Johnsons fame, has a truly dazzling voice, as immediately distinctive as it is technically on-point. But Antony hasn’t shown that he has much idea what to do with that voice, at least not from where I’m sitting; his own cabaret-folk excursions are way too formless and self-indulgent for me. But Butler turns him into a disco diva, which makes pretty much the perfect context for this guy. More than any of the acts I’m talking about in this entry, Hercules & Love Affair is straight-up disco (if “straight-up disco” isn’t some horrible contradiction-in-terms misnomer). Butler clearly wants to find the same balance of muscular thump and melodic uplift that exists in some of the best prime-era disco records, and sometimes he finds it. “Blind,” the pseudo-hit single, is a serious starstruck banger, Antony testifying meaningless idealism over a sweeping hurricane of horns and slap-bass and ravey synth-burble. And “You Belong” just whoops ass, Kim Ann Foxman snarling icy Crystal Waters drama while Antony coos in the background and cowbells and housey pianos fly in from all directions. But those are the most straight-ahead tracks on the self-titled Hercules album; sometimes this stuff wafts off into fidgety avant-disco diffusion and sort of loses me. Even then, though, the rhythmic push and melodic pull are both there, figuring ways to work together. I’m still absorbing this one, but it’s scratching itches.

My favorite of these albums by a pretty serious margin, though, is Kelley Polar’s I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling. My standard line on Polar is that he sounds the way I’d imagined Arthur Russell would sound before I actually heard Arthur Russell. Back when those Russell reissues were first getting ink, the writers who bigged him up focused on a few aspects of his work (cellos, rippling beats, withdrawn sad-gay-guy emoting) without mentioning the stuff that would ultimately make it impossible for me to fully get into the guy (Chick Corea electric pianos, endless tracks). Polar basically makes the music I’d been hoping Russell would: proggy, ambitious string-laden space-disco with a gooey tender-hearted center. His 2005 debut, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens, walked the same middle-ground between glassy minimal techno and dinky laptop-emo that the Junior Boys live on. With the new album, though, he’s fully internalized both tendencies and fused them into something bigger than its parts, making room for Tangerine Dream lunar-landscape heaviness and early-house lushness. And the hooks here are out of control, both in terms of sweep and immediacy; when Polar and his female counterpoint come together on the chorus of “Entropy Reigns (in the Celestial City),” it just kills me. I hadn’t even realized this until Matthew Fluxblog pointed it out, but that song’s lyrics actually make for a pretty compelling portrait of a character who feels completely lost in nightlife sensation and who can’t find a way to pull any meaning from it. That contrast is all over this thing: slick surface and helpless sentiment coexisting peacefully, giving each other context.