Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Autogramm's What R U Waiting 4?

A few months ago while I was on a road trip, I found an FM station that was on quite a rip playing so-called New Wave tunes from the early '80s. We're talking Tommy Tutone and the Plimsouls and Broken English and even The Knack, which was more of a '70s thing. You know the sound, however, straight-ahead rock bands that are peppier than the dinosaur rock that was petering out at the same time--it was more of a return to the concise three-minute pop song than anything else, and it changed our landscape in Southern California. What's funny was how all these songs sounded so different today, perhaps because it's been so long since I've heard any of them on the radio. With everything that's happened in the last thirty years, the New Wave had more in common with old-fashioned rock-and-roll than I remembered. But it was still mighty fun to listen while the signal held.

Autogramm understands that. This pop trio, based in Vancouver BC, bill themselves as "new wave revivalists." I've heard plenty of bands, even ones based in the Pacific Northwest, that capture many of those common new wave characteristics, but it's been a long time that I've heard something so fresh and so directly connected to the music that was happening during my college days. Autogramm's members--vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist Jiffy Marx, bassist and singer CC Voltage and drummer and singer The Silo--accomplish this by playing it straight. They're not interested in paying homage to an era as much as remembering the energy and excitement and optimism that was New Wave, and putting it down as if it was still 1983. That means there's no winking at the audience...there's only love and respect, presumably captured through a lot of research.

If I had to chose an attitude that defines this type of music, it's earnestness. The New Wave was about ditching that rock star mentality and all of its excesses, the twenty minute guitar solos and the decadent lifestyles and the hairdos. There was a nerdiness to it, but it was a nerdiness that redefined cool instead of opposing it. Autogramm brings this thinking to the foreground on songs such as "Cool Kids Radio" and "The Modern World" (which starts off with the line "I don't quite fit in"). That was one of the most appealing parts of new wave, that it seemed to turn the page on pop music by appealing to an entirely different sort of kid, one who was smart and got good grades and was tired of the scroungy, drugged-out youth scene of the '70s. I can remember the day I finally cut my shoulder-length hair and replaced my black t-shirts with rock band logos for nice button-down Oxford shirts and dress shoes--it was liberating, just like this music.

Where Autogramm gets it absolutely right is in its use of keyboards. Back then, synthesizers weren't necessarily lead instruments. They added texture and foundation, much like a bass, echoing the melody in a way that was a clear update from music of the past. Casios replaced Hammond B-3s and Rhodes electric piano, and everything became simpler and more streamlined. Jiffy's keyboards define Autogramm's sound without dominating it, and that's where you'll hear all their new wave influences shine through--everyone from Gary Numan to The Cars to even a little Devo. The fact that they do this without once being mawkish is a major event, and it's the best reason for checking out this wildly entertaining album.

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