During musical periods when no single genre dominates, artists often look to earlier styles for inspiration -- and judging by Electro Nouveau and We Are Science, synthpop, that quintessentially '80s approach, is getting ready for another close-up. Whether this news is good or grisly is debatable, at this point. But what's ultimately cheering about these discs is the willingness of the artists who made them to tweak the past, rather than be held in thrall to it.
As its title implies, Electro Nouveau is a two-CD smorgasbord of synthetic possibilities, many of which straddle tribute and satire. "Euro Trash Girl," a cover of a Cracker tune by Chicks on Speed, is a deadpan goof -- complete with affectless recitations about an "angel in black" -- over the cheapest rhythm track imaginable, while Ladytron's "Seventeen" sports vintage keyboard tones and amusingly overwrought lyrics ("They only want you when you're 17/When you're 21, you're no fun") that are whispered through a Vocoder.
Retro references abound: Shortly after Mount Sims climbs into one of Gary Numan's cars wearing "Black Sunglasses," Laptop nods to Heaven 17-esque ice funk on "Greatest Hits." But there are also moments when flashback feelings get a fresh spin. Xero 6's "Gale Winds" is a hyperactive opus that blends electro-diva warbling with enough beats per minute to satisfy the most hyperactive raver; Freezepop's "Plastic Stars" juxtaposes hooky synth-splats with singing that's charmingly low-key; and Bis's "The End Starts Today" gives Depeche Mode drama a cheeky twist. Overall, Electro Nouveau catches a new generation in the midst of discovering how tasty sonic cheese can be.
We Are Science is a more serious piece of work, as befits a performer with a history of innovation: Allison was at the center of One Dove, whose 1993 album, Morning Dove White, is widely regarded as a techno landmark. Her latest effort is only her second solo outing (following 1999's Afterglow), but her easy confidence and consistent inventiveness suggest that she's been on her own for ages. "Substance" pits Allison's tender pleadings against mechanized cricket chirping; "You Can Be Replaced" comes across as a threat wrapped in velvet; and "Make It Happen" explores the dangers of seduction, via the robotic delivery of such lines as "How does it feel to know that this is real?"
So strong is Science that defining it as synthpop doesn't seem quite right. But if Allison's offering is a harbinger, the return of this sound should be embraced, not feared. Come back, Flying Lizards. All is forgiven.