When the Rough Trade Album Club is at its best, it delivers both quality and diversity.
In recent months, we’ve had girl band indie (Girl Ray), wonky folk (This Is The Kit), and modern classical (Max Richter). Of those, This Is The Kit really resonated, becoming one of my favourite albums of the year. Well September’s LP could be up there too.
“Omnion” is the fourth album by Hercules and Love Affair, which is essentially American DJ Andy Butler with a revolving cast of supporting musicians. This has included some stellar company such as John Grant, Anohni (formally of Antony and The Johnsons) and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke. The use of the differing vocalists provides each LP with a sense of focus. Whilst the music is good and very danceable, the quality of the vocals and song writing elevates the songs.
This time around the guests include The Horrors’ Faris Badwan, Sharon Van Etten and Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese alternative band.
The LP is incredibly immediate. I’m partial to a bit of camp disco, having enjoyed the debut LPs by Dee-Lite and Scissor Sisters. We were playing it on a Sunday afternoon around the house and it clicked with every member of the family. It hangs together as a whole, bringing to mind another Rough Trade Album of the Month from last year, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve “The Soft Bounce“. The presence of the assortment of guests, combined with some strong songwriting, breaks up what could be a relatively monotonous “four to the floor” theme through the record.
I first became aware of the band with their second album, “Blue Songs” released on Moshi Moshi in 2011. This was a much more Chicago House flavoured record and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t quite take to it. It didn’t offer sufficient an upgrade or diversion from the original sound. Most significantly, the songs didn’t really pass muster. The music was groove based, which is fine in itself, but the vocal lines didn’t really take the songs anywhere beyond the dance floor. I’ve revisited “Blue Songs” since hearing “Omnion” just to check that my ears hadn’t failed me six years ago. They didn’t – it still leaves me cold. The final straw was a doleful version of Sterling Void/The Pet Shop Boys “It’s Alright” which removes the celebratory euphoria and sets it at a funereal pace.
I have to confess that I didn’t re-engage with the band after the “Blue Songs” LP. It wasn’t that it was particularly bad. There was just other music to be investigating. So it was with a degree of trepidation when “Omnion” landed on my doormat. In the accompanying Rough Trade magazine Butler comes across an interesting musician, open to influences. His drive for the album was to emphasise the songwriting, which he has succeeded in doing. He started as a teenage fan of what in the USA was called “college rock” (R.E.M., The Jesus and Mary Chain etc) as industrial electronic music such as Front 242.
Opening with the collaboration with Van Etten on the title track, it comes in on a wispy fading electronic pulse, this is a song about doubt and being exposed, not some brash disco banger. There is a particularly beautiful remix version by Ultramarine around, which takes things down even further and strips away the layers one by one:
Over the years my heart has hardened
The pain has been great
I’m not the man people used to see
Are you there?
I want to be the best man
That I can be
So can you help?
Can you help from beyond?
It is an incredibly vulnerable opening to the record, reflecting Butler difficulties dealing with illness and addition. This is most evident in “Fools Wear Crowns” which is the only track sung by Butler himself. He covered this extensively in a recent interview with Pitchfork magazine, speaking about “Fools” in particular:
“Fools Wear Crowns” was an opportunity for me, in a small way, to express some remorse. It was a little attempt at [making] amends for a specific relationship, but also many of the relationships in my life that suffered during that period. The lyrics acknowledge that we as humans enjoy, in a weird way, watching people fumble. But it’s not always buffoonery that you’re seeing. In my case, I think there was an illness at play. The song examines lens through which we look at people’s messiness. It’s like saying, “I’m vulnerable, prone to mistakes, and I’ve made some.”
Butler dips back into the British 80s electronic scene for the Badwan’s first track “Controller”, the sort of skilful confection Vince Clarke appears capable of knocking out in his sleep in his Depeche/Yazoo/Erasure pomp. Butler saw something in Badwan that he could work with, a rock star that could get into the Hercules club vibe. It is a Dave Gahan in reverse type of thing.
If anyone is yearning for the more disco orientated tracks, then the Rouge Mary featured songs “Rejoice” and “Wildchild” are the dance floor killers. There are a few tracks with Gustaph, another long-standing Hercules vocal collaborator.
“Are You Still Certain?” is a brave highlight. Song initially in arabic, it is works in duality seemingly questioning society’s entrenched views, be them religious dogma, politics or sexuality. Featuring Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila (whose name translates into Overnight Project), it is a very apposite collaboration. Their lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and an advocate of LGBT rights, especially in the arab world. The band were formed partly to provide a vehicle for commenting on the 2008 Lebanese crisis.
No one knows truth
How can you judge with such confidence?
Why have you given yourself licence
To speak with such conviction
Butler has also extended the global Hercules network by bringing in Icelandic sisters Sísý Ye for the song “Running”. The group have been trying to harness their close family harmonies in an electronic house environment and so working with Butler is not that big a leap. The effect is an update of the sound of Sister Sledge and the Pointer Systems, whereby there is an individual and collective voice that are both simultaneously different and similar.
I’ve enjoyed “Omnion” so much that I’ve gone back at dug out Butler’s previous LP as Hercules, 2014’s “The Feast Of The Broken Heart”. As a huge John Grant fan, I immediately took a shine to “I Try To Talk To You” and “Liberty”. This is a clear signpost of the dance floor direction that Grant has taken on parts of his last two LPs with tracks such as “Snug Slacks”, “Black Belt” and “Disappointing”. Indeed, it was whilst performing with Hercules at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 that Grant confirmed that he was HIV positive. “Feast” is a much more direct album than “Blue Songs” and if you’ve read this blog piece and enjoyed “Omnion” then I’d recommend that you go back an album to 2014.
By way of an observation, listening to the new Hercules album plus LCD Soundsystem’s comeback record, there seems to be a musical sweet spot around early New Order (i.e. up to “Power Corruption and Lies”) and mid period Cabaret Voltaire (i.e. from 1982-85). This is for me is to be welcomed as it was the initial period of identifying that music for the dance floor could be more than disco fodder. It could be sonically challenging and populist at the same time.
So the Album Of The Month triumphs again. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one but, as it transpires, what do I know?