604 (Emperor Norton)

The English band Ladytron calls itself "retro futurist," an oxymoron meant to indicate backward-looking forward thought. It may sound confusing but it works. From the opening instrumental track "Mu-Tron" to the final, droning-yet-melodic number "Skools Out...," the group evokes real nostalgia for vintage synthesizers without the camp or irony often attached to such projects.

While Ladytron's look recalls Twiggy, Warhol, and '60s London, its members play keyboards like Stereolab, a band that swiped from earlier groups like Neu! and Faust. This is no simple revival, however: It is as if, after a field trip through electronic music's natural history museum, Ladytron wrote a term paper compiling each era's best moments. "He Took Her to a Movie" is a song that references Kraftwerk's cold keyboard sound, but also imbues it with new life by grafting a woman's ambiguous sexual orientation onto it; when Bulgarian native Mira Aroyo sings, "He took her to a movie/ But so did I," the song becomes something old and new.

Ladytron's lyrics present a dystopia of romantic relations, although the deceptive ease of the music can disguise the heft of its message. On the energetic, Giorgio Moroder-sounding "Discotraxx," a breathy Helena Marnie relates romantic doom, singing, "The way they look/ They were made to let each other down." On "Another Breakfast With You," Marnie croons over traditional synth sounds and a quiet cacophony of digital noises: "I didn't feel a thing/ When you told me that/ You didn't feel a thing." These oppositions, though not as politically charged as Stereolab's post-Marxist juxtapositions, give the songs a joyous weight.


Sample of Ladytron's "He Took Her to a Movie," from the CD 604. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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Ladytron's experimental pop music is subtle, and full appreciation requires multiple listens. At first you may dismiss 604 as merely another artifact of the '60s-to-'80s synth revival. But the album, with its pessimistic-cum-realistic take on amore and its layering of past electronics, surpasses its "retro futurist" format. Ladytron escapes the kitsch trap by recognizing a future and re-examining a past.

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