The Feast of the Broken HeartHercules and Love Affair have, on their third album, confirmed that their own intense love affair with dance music made during the various halcyon years of its many important manifestations is ongoing and as slavish and cult-like as ever. Whilst their 2008 debut album put Anthony of the Johnsons at its centre as the wounded but forever stoic and ultimate Disco Queen and its follow up, 2011’s “Blue Songs” flirted with stranger, European disco and electronic music of the late seventies and early eighties “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is an all-out, no exceptions and no-holds-barred house music rewrite. Trax Records, bitch house, dominant, soulful vocals and luxurious and uplifting melodies are the setting here and, unlike previous releases from the collective, the fever never resolves itself with a ballad. BPM are set at an almost constant 126 and it is relentless in its intention. The sadness and melancholia which is an intrinsic element of House and Disco music’s DNA has translated to Hercules and Love Affair’s music; it was always there from the beginning and it is what helps sets this band apart from other similar but less knowing and respectful acts. Importantly, the band don’t do irony or kitsch, they are interested only in the heart and blood of dance music-and having the most amazing night of your life, again and again.

Andy Butler represents dance music made mainly but not exclusively by openly gay and transgender artists. It feels synonymous with a post-aids New York but is considerably more wide-reaching than this, more than anything though it is resolutely and absolutely ‘queer’. Alternative and maintaining free and radical thinking and challenging the norms of today’s gay culture, the list of Butler’s vocal contributors has always supported this. The biggest name here is singer-songwriter du jour John Grant, an inspired and fascinating choice. Alongside him are established soul singer Krystle Warren, trans star Rouge Mary and Berlin based vocalist Gustaph. Grant’s contributions here are not a million miles from those featured on his ground-breaking and celebrated excursion in techno and electronic-folk album from last year, “Pale Green Ghosts”. As might be expected the arrangements here are more florid but detail is everything particularly with the incredible “I Try to Talk to You” which deals with an issue that also played a pivotal part in “Pale Green Ghosts”, that of Grant’s HIV status. Set against distinct hi-hats , churning beats, strings and synth ‘whoosh’ stabs which have been adopted by everyone from Lisa Lisa to the Pet Shop Boys (past and present) it almost, but not quite, tips into handbag house that prevailed briefly in the mid-nineties.  A dancing and tinkling, emotional piano refrain props up Grant’s mournful longing ‘I would give you anything to take away your pain’. 

‘Are you talking to me? My name isn’t girl. Nor is ‘hey look at me, c’mon baby, give us a twirl’….I’ve come too far from the girl I was taught to be for you to make a bitch out of me’; on “My Offence” Krystle Warren’s vocals are assertive and warm and very much at home on this self-empowerment statement, punctuated by a sharp disco whistle note; this is neither preachy nor sentimental, it’s the album’s highlight. “That’s Not Me” featuring Gustaph is a twitchy and tense minimal house workout and “5:43 To Freedom” harks back to the bitch tracks of early Junior Vasquez and Larry Tee –  ‘is that boy of a girl? A communist?  Probably a speed freak. Some sort of intellectual – or a muscle-queen? Just a whore’.  “Do You Feel the Same?” builds on the bliss house of The Beloved and Electribe 101 and the “The Light” sees Krystle Warren’s vocals glisten and soothe over Basement Boys (Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters) keyboards, making good use of a determined answer-machine bleep and electric-guitar samples.  

Although not as experimental as previous releases which have played with language, tempos and sub-cultures of dance music, “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is Hercules and Love Affair’s most optimistic, euphoric and consistently engaging album to date. There is enough lyrical weight and personality to prevent this from becoming as one note as it could have been if left in the wrong hands, although this would still play gloriously as a continuous DJ set, which is no criticism. Dance artists have time and again failed when they have diverted from their own template, tried to incorporate styles that can’t yet master but Andy Butler doesn’t even attempt that here. A record to dance to then, from a start to finish non-stop movement and joy which is never dumb or repetitive. “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is a celebration of dance floor families, love and survival.

Stay GoldenTristesse Comtemporaine is a collaboration between former singer of Earthling, Maik, former Japanese punk singer, Marumi and Swedish guitarist Leo (a former hockey player) and “Stay Golden” is their second album.  After hearing the album’s opening track a few months ago, I was interested enough to want to hear the rest of the album; intrigued, even.  Perhaps I should have just left it at that.

Once you get past the opening tracks, “Fire”, “Stay Golden” and “Waiting”, everything starts to sound very familiar.  There’s a template which is applied to almost every track; the opening is minimalist percussion or synth sounds, a breathy vocal comes in and then layers are added as the song progresses.  Where this works it works really well, but would you want to have the same food every time you eat?

Some of the elements are interesting; there are some nice synth sounds and the occasional blast of crunching guitar.  The vocals are generally breathy and close-miked, sounding like something midway between Chris Difford (Squeeze) and The Beloved’s Jon Marsh, and they initially pull the listener in, like an orator lowering their voice for emphasis but the impact is lost when the technique is used constantly.  There’s a lot of repetition on the album (drum patterns, looped synth lines and repeated lyrics) which gives the impression that Tristesse Contemporaine didn’t have enough original ideas for a whole album.

There are moments when the trio achieve what I think they set out to achieve and create moods that are languorous, menacing and disturbing both musically and lyrically.  When this happens, it’s very powerful and evocative, but the problem for me is that it doesn’t happen often enough.  The alienation evoked by the songs is emphasised in the videos but, ultimately, the project feels like an attempt to seem interesting by being self-consciously strange.  It might work for you but it doesn’t really do it for me.

There some very interesting (and disturbing) ideas here musically and lyrically, but they are spread very thinly.  Tristesse Contemporaine could have released a very good four or five track EP from this selection, but in this format, it’s a frustrating hint at what could have been a very good album.

Out now on Record Makers (REC 100-01-LC-16765).

HartebeestI’ve had this track for a little while now, waiting for something else to appear that will reveal a little more about the upper case admiring duo and this much I do know; there are apparently two of them. But they have proved to be admirably elusive. Once based in London and now they live on unspecified island, allegedly, in order for them to create the very man-made sounding “Death”.

A glacial and spinning electronic synth riff carries a tune which combines a male vocal reminiscent of Kele Okereke from Bloc Party at his most reflective and a soulful aesthetic similar to that of The Beloved’s late eighties chill-house anthem “The Sun Rising”. The lyrics are also oddly uplifting given the song’s title and when the vocal reassures ‘I’ll hold you in my hand when you cross over to the other side’; it all sounds quite lovely.

Whether HARTEBEEST turn out to be artists that we already know but have taken another route musically, and this could be a real option I feel, or if they are a new band which just wants to create some old fashioned mystery surrounding their identity remains to be seen. This would be an interesting introduction to either, not quite strong enough to lead an album campaign and more than an album track, “Death” sits somewhere in between. Can the real HARTEBEEST please come forward; we are interested to hear more.