Synth-pop. It achieves something, at its sharpest. A moulding of mood, perhaps – statements in short, staccato sequences. Individual notes, especially lower down the register, that suggest an otherworldliness. Retro yet futuristic. Unsettling whilst embracing. Dark and light – file under stark, under texture.
And then there’s the début Ladytron LP (if you’re going to name your band after an early Roxy Music track, you’d better ensure that your sound stands up). When it comes to electronic pop, I yearn to be seduced; when that seduction begins with the artwork, the signs are wholly positive. Can I marry this lady? Or at least swap calculator secrets? Despite the subtle allusions to Soviet futurism on the cover of US release, it’s the UK version (and that enigmatic expression) that serves as a point of reference; 604 is very much the shade of soundtrack that this artwork femme listens to.
This, of course, is judging books by their covers territory – and a default criticism of the Ladytron oeuvre is that the musical content is as highly stylised as the cover image. Overtly chic, you could claim; consciously attempting to prejudice the reception its due to receive. And whilst the album’s coherence is a somewhat misleading proposition – the genesis is a long one, certain tracks appearing up to two years beforehand on various EPs – this fact fails to trouble me too much. It helps that opener ‘Mu-Tron’ serves to frame all that follows; an elegant, somewhat disconcerting instrumental in which the timbres of the analogue synth are backlit, as if a model on a Murmansk catwalk (albeit the allusions to Kraftwerk are always going to work in its favour).
You’ll have picked up upon the occasional Eastern European reference embedded in the words by now; a conscious attempt to mirror an undertone of 604 itself. It’s not just the Bulgarian influences – courtesy of co-vocalist Mira Aroyo – or the track slipped in to the dead of night with the title of ‘CSKA Sofia’; it’s also apparent in this record’s utilitarian glamour. A deconstructionist tint, stirred across the sound. Other albums of this ilk approach the listener straight on; what you see (or hear, in this context) is what you get. This record, however – it arrives with stealth, at an oblique angle. Strands of postured unpredictability and quirky detail – ‘Paco!’, obviously – what’s not to love about a cover version of the Are You Being Served? theme tune from a parallel universe? – but also entire chunks of attitude, all served chilled. The dual vocals create waves of contrast – there’s a stand-off between remote breathlessness and elder teenage sister solidarity, should you hunt for it. The instrumental tracks have a cunning depth – particularly the dissonant folk tune exposure of ‘Zmeyka’ – whilst those with vocals have a playful quality, surfing on the surface of things.
And above all – this is a record that’s fun yet intelligent with it; what initially comes across as cold or staged revealing a joyous subtext once you’ve sussed the context. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to argue that this is the Greatest LP of All time or anything – I’ve prepared myself for a degree of kickback in the comments section, even if it is Album of the Year in part because 2001 was such a fallow year – but my audio voyage so far has been enhanced because of it. I have a relationship with this album, and that’s probably the next best thing to having a relationship with the lady from the artwork.
Ladytron / Paco!