The Faint

Danse Macabre

(Saddle Creek)

As the Renaissance waned, visual art hit a speed bump. For an uncertain hundred years or so, before Baroque heraldry emerged as the next dominant style, artists labored to assimilate the immense advances in both their tradition and the larger world of ideas. These painters were the mannerists; incapable of transcending the titans of the Renaissance, they echoed and distorted their lines, producing an effete, elongated, faintly delirious style that’s since become synonymous with affectation. Their heightened sense of gesture would eventually bridge the way to the great ornamental art of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as to the Romantic beginnings of art for art’s sake–but not before a lot of wonderfully weird, epicene reflection.

As the 90s waned, genres as various as neogarage, postrock, and electronica followed a similar course, yielding all sorts of music that harked back to the mid-80s. Characterized by the rediscovery of the analog synth’s dirty charms and by cross-pollination with dancier forms, this retro stuff has become ubiquitous in the last couple years, a still-cresting phenomenon. But modern dance rock is a curious beast: indebted to music that’s itself choked with echoes, it’s a mannerist mannerism, a copy of a copy. The fey shape of the resultant idiom can be discerned in recent albums from two bands, Fischerspooner and the Faint, who despite coming from opposite ends of the dance/rock spectrum have arrived at pretty much the same point. Fischerspooner’s #1, however, is a vast single joke, while the Faint’s Danse Macabre is a deadly serious, almost scientific recombination of the half-assed hopes of rock’s first mannerist age–to which you must return to really parse the difference.

As the 60s heaved to a close, rock gave way to its compound offspring: art rock, prog rock, glam rock, cock rock. Each pushed the idiom’s classical forms into romantic permutations, both artier and more grandiose that, while initially fruitful, grew self-important and ponderous, necessitating the reaction of punk, rock’s own apocalypse of a renaissance. In the on-deck circle, postpunk and new wave nervously waited.

Like any such coinage, postpunk and new wave represent oversimplified fictions. Postpunk’s cold formalization of punk’s furious reductionism can be traced to Krautrock and beyond, new wave’s exuberant delicacy to Bowie and the whole glitter crowd; anyway by ’77 a lot of punk and mainstream music was already bristling with postpunk and new-wave signifiers. Power-pop bands from the Undertones to the Knack incorporated both; punk rockers Blondie, the Damned, and Wire prefigured new-wave dance, early goth, and postpunk antimusic respectively. Even the dinosaurs were sounding suspiciously angry or neurotic by ’79. And both forms interbred with everything from disco to R & B to reggae to early hip-hop.

The labels were slippery all right, more music-biz marketing than description. At first a useful way to pigeonhole shiny pop-rock acts like the Cars and the Pretenders, new wave was quickly bent into a catchall term for a wide range of pretty, scary, or silly dance-inflected acts, some retro, some futuristic, that were deemed more commercially viable than their punk cousins; as terminology, postpunk was more a riposte than anything else, a desperate attempt to cordon off more legit bands (PiL, Gang of Four, the Lords of the New Church, Killing Joke, and Bauhaus) from the poseurs anointed by the media. The difference could be tenuous, and a few bands straddled the line, but as the 80s progressed the movements became more and more alienated, with devotees split into camps of soft and hard, style and substance. New wave and postpunk would peter out mid-decade, due in no small part to mutual avoidance, though their problems went deeper than sibling rivalry.

The technology to provide a simulacrum of proficiency for the overambitious or underskilled was still 15 years off–even in the best hands, integrations of live and canned instrumentation still tended to sound like a guitar stapled to an Atari 2600. Like the visual mannerists before them, most of the postpunks quickly lost themselves in shadowy, stylized mimicry of their masters. Similarly, the new wavers’ fixation on extramusical production values and gimmicky postmodern references led to a dwindling of innovation, and few came anywhere near rocking. If punk proved anyone could make music, new wave proved everyone couldn’t, while postpunk effectively said “So what if they can?” With a handful of exceptions (Einsturzende Neubauten, the Fall), band after band undertook woefully pretentious, presumptuously assimilative (or amusical) projects despite barely being able to navigate a blues scale or a synthesizer (Thompson Twins, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Primal Scream, a million forgotten industrial bands and Ramones clones). Dozens of others offered mind-numbingly repetitive studies in one facet of one style–Duran Duran’s Bowie/Roxy hybrid, Missing Persons’ post-Blondie warblings, the delicious but narrow oddities the Specials and Adam Ant. Most of the bands had a couple good songs or albums in them at best. The 16th-century mannerists were at least skilled craftsmen; the postpunks and new wavers were by and large pretenders.

For any number of reasons, the clumsy visions of the late 70s and early 80s wouldn’t be realized until the 90s. Nirvana represented a “broken” punk, Kurt’s explosive closer an amplification of Sid’s grisly exit. The riot of candy-colored mid-90s retro pop that followed–Blur’s “Boys and Girls,” No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Elastica’s “Connection”–updated some of new wave’s less effete experiments. The contemporaneous explosion of electronic styles breathed new life into postpunk’s machine dance. And now, in the high mannerist period, an endless succession of bands devours the 80s and beyond piece by piece, delivering product after tastefully derivative product. The shocker is that very little of it out-and-out sucks.

The technology has caught up, which explains some things, but so has the culture. The modern media consumer is more aware of himself as consumer, rock is more aware of itself as product, and life as the virtual experience and manipulation of overlapping texts is an understood feature of first-world existence, whether you’ve been to college or not. Bands like the White Stripes, the Libertines, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs incorporate this mature postmodern outlook, doing justice to their sources in terms of execution and historicity while making music undeniably of its time. Meanwhile the laptop set tend to play a more sophisticated, thoughtful game than the futurists of the 80s. Likewise their modest aims and awareness of themselves as nonmusicians have nearly made the “faker” sobriquet irrelevant.

The mannerism of our age isn’t without pitfalls. It’s pretty cool how much the Rapture can sound like the Cure; I wish I liked them more when they didn’t. Influence can always decay to apery, and the push-go capabilities of modern software make gross incompetence a nonissue. Once upon a time, it took studio magic or session players to conceal a band’s multitude of failings; today a guy who knows his way around the right computer can do almost anything he wants. The electroclash trend has extended this tendency to its logical extreme.

Like new wave before it, electroclash is a misleading moniker, a misapplied umbrella term for a diversity of styles, that stuck. The defiantly dilettantish art-school types in electroclash’s vanguard, like Peaches and Adult., initially hewed to a somewhat authentic electro line, for simplicity’s sake above all else. Parallel oddballs like Momus suggested that a laptop, in the right hands, could elevate a singer’s shtick into a one-man performance-art piece; between these approaches, the basic electroclash formula of “hit play, let your personality expand to fill the act” was born. As the trend gathered strength, bringing higher stakes and a deeper pool of talent, the stripped-down beats and bass lines of the first wave gave way to bigger, thicker, more sophisticated compositions, and the cannibalized idiom crept ever further into the deep dark heart of the 80s. Electroclash grew to encompass a broad spectrum of synth-heavy, dancey retrophilia, as much a “happening” as a musical phenomenon, with fashion designers and theatrical artists flocking to embellish the scene’s flashy-trash sensibility.

Hipsters loved it; Luddites and purists hated it. Among those with a predilection for the specific forms of synth pop mined, there was considerable division. On one hand, deducting points for lifting sounds and phrases whole was as ridiculous as insisting Brian Eno play guitar. On the other, anyone with a real love for this stuff could argue that the coy recyclers were squandering an opportunity to right the wrong of postpunk and new wave’s premature disintegrations–an opportunity to bring the form into a realized “present” it never saw.

As the encouraging first wave faded, and the second split into factions, hopes for reconciliation between punk’s problem children were increasingly pinned on their dancier offshoots. What was left of postpunk’s rock tendencies would eventually feed into indie rock, thanks to Sonic Youth and their ilk; new-wave survivors like the Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen would likewise stabilize the smart, sad, best of the trend. But the precise, trippy dance music that rose from the ashes of postpunk and new wave (as well as floating subgenres goth and industrial) seemed the surest bet for reunification. Wire and New Order had pointed the way, and second-generation acts like Coil and Skinny Puppy seemed to promise a subsequent yield. The 4AD “ethereal goth” crowd’s sound had similar potential. Unfortunately the synthesis of postpunk’s “tough” and new wave’s “fancy” dead-ended in Al Jourgenson, Trent Reznor, and industrial disco; though successfully delivered, the last-gasp offspring was a musical crack-baby.

Enter Fischerspooner, most likely to succeed of the electroclash contingent. Front man Casey Spooner is a former painter and actor; behind the curtain is Warren Fischer, a classically trained musician. They met at the School of the Art Institute; reunited in New York in 1999, they attempted to collaborate on a film, but ended up liking only their archly retro, synthesized sound track. Chucking the original idea, they decided to focus on the performance-art possibilities of the music.

Their first performance was a rickety affair at a Starbucks; within a year the stage show would include 20-plus dancers, DJs, and random freaks. Spooner embraced the role of master of ceremonies, a mad made-up emperor consigned to a glittering, labyrinthine tomb, cavorting from landing to landing, through costume after costume, while Fischer labored to fashion the dubious quantity of “legitimate” ripped-off accompaniment. As electroclash burst into being, they were anointed standard-bearers for the whole phenomenon, and afterparties with a topless Courtney Love, command performances for David Bowie, and the vulturish attentions of Madonna followed in short order. By the time the underground scene got fed up with itself, they were positioned to dominate the sally into the mainstream.

Then came the inevitable backlash: even before the release of their Capitol debut, the singles collection #1, the murmurs had begun. They were a floor show, not a band. Their programming was rudimentary, an insult to its analog sources–the impression, but not the actual sound, of early- and mid-80s dance. Fischer was an unimaginative hack, Spooner an intolerable prancing fop.

Fischerspooner’s music doesn’t hold up so well, but it’s not as atrocious as detractors would have it. The first four songs on #1, even the obnoxious “Emerge,” are great fun, even well constructed; the rest are hookless, mediocre disco. But then Spooner doesn’t call himself a musician, and as a Bowie-like receptacle for projected fantasy, he does handy work. And the show is so clearly the thing that to judge Fischerspooner on purely musical terms is to totally miss the point.

Fischerspooner is pure spectacle, concerned entirely with surface, but the surface they deliver is sensual and satisfying. In the video for their cover of Wire’s “The 15th” (sure enough their best recording) they handsomely simulate the nonexistent videotapes of the band’s basement rehearsals, exhibiting as much attention to the dressed-down aesthetic of Mancunian punk as they do elsewhere to their post-new-wave fantasias–which, depending on your perspective, exposes them for what they are or confirms their simple infatuation with their models. According to Fischerspooner’s manifesto, they present a “reflective portrait of entertainment itself: admiring in public what is considered in private”–a drunken bedroom dance party, with its paradoxical combination of abandon and imitation, translated to the stage. A kind of bravery suffuses their efforts; for all their pretension and lack of ability, they’re working without a net.

Even archaeological art must discover a new way to make the old new, however, and by this standard Fischerspooner are a blind alley musically; as they bring nothing fresh to the past, it’s unlikely they’ll have much influence on the future. The visuals are another matter, but even as send-up/celebration, they come dangerously close to recapitulating new wave’s style-over-substance downfall. And while those electroclash acts more grounded in the living tradition of club music generally avoid such snares, to find a similarly flavored but more viable mannerism, you’ve got to go to the opposite end of the spectrum: postpunk and new wave as approached from rock.

This side of the field is currently rife with contenders. Well-heeled garage band the Strokes broke high mannerism to the mainstream with “Last Night”; once everyone saw that a considered, tasteful mash-up (Tom Petty’s “An American Girl” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”) could survive critical scrutiny, the floodgates were opened. Radio 4’s post-Gang of Four angularity dovetails nicely with vocals that channel Look Sharp-era Joe Jackson. Spoon’s retrofit of Elvis Costello’s sneer to a tighter, leaner, more focused pop-punk idiom is so addictive you wish Elvis had collaborated with Johnny Rotten instead of Nick Lowe. And Interpol’s surface-level interpolation of Joy Division, Talking Heads, and the Bunnymen, draped across a fundamentally Furs-esque architecture, is the answer to a legion of angry (but tender) young prayers.

But one band stands out from the rest. The Faint, easily the most committed of the postpunk-dance revivalists, come from the unlikely hot spot of Omaha, where they’re scenemates to Bright Eyes, Cursive, and the rest of the Saddle Creek gang. The band’s core–Todd Baechle, Clark Baechle, and Joel Peterson–also met in art school, and also started out playing coffeehouses (in 1994, under the dorky name Norman Bailer). They concocted a strange mix of folky emo and would-be techno; they’d ditch much of the former for 1998’s Media, their first album as the Faint. As with Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, band and fan base are unanimous in their appraisal of the freshman release: it’s something, in lead singer Todd Baechle’s words, “that people wouldn’t want to buy and listen to, but something that, if they’ve got the other albums, they were curious about.” Flashes of the band they’d become were audible–more programming, a veer into Britpop–but Media kind of sucks, with nary a “Creep” in sight.

As with Radiohead, the Faint’s future lay in a processed sound, but one still rooted in traditional song structure. Their next release, 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcade, found them well ahead of their better-connected retro competition; having recruited synth wizard Jacob Thiele midway through the album’s composition, they ventured deeper into an 80s dance sound, referencing the Cure, Gang of Four, Talk Talk, Severed Heads, even Kim Wilde. Chirps, beeps, burbles, and twitters buzz around Baechle’s voice in nine tracks that hop all over the synth-pop landscape, joining sounds that never met but should’ve. One song’s inescapable hook shows how the Atari/guitar fusion could’ve been pulled off; another juxtaposes click-clack Kraftwerk stuff with a Mark E. Smith-style megaphoned vocal. Though somewhat vulnerable to accusations of Sneaker Pimps-style slumming, the album brought the Faint into focus.

In 2001 guitar hero Dapose, late of Omaha’s premier death-metal band, Lead, joined the Faint in time for the recording of their masterwork so far, Danse Macabre. Returning rock to an equation that had largely factored it out, Dapose plays like Elliot Easton of the Cars, showing off in polite bursts completely subservient to the sequenced whole. Between his accents, Thiele’s increased contribution, and Todd Baechle’s superimproved songcraft, the Faint achieved a quantum leap on the order of OK Computer, an album remarkable for its studied incorporation of influences and simultaneous naked passion.

Having evolved into the 1987 dream band that never was, the Faint have also taken up the relevant production values–black clothing, challenging hairstyles, thick eyeliner–and their appropriation seems drily dutiful, like a shy kid’s acquiescence to the shtick that just happens to fit him. Frenetic, Sprockets-esque spasticity, dramatic lighting, and the obligatory military footage characterize the stage show–the red-and-black counterpart to Fischerspooner’s pageant of many colors.

Lyrically, Danse Macabre takes up treacherous deep-80s tropes of poison, mannequins, and murder without a trace of irony; in songs like “Posed to Death” and “Agenda Suicide,” gothic cliches of paralysis and entombment are miraculously restored to metaphors for alienation and economic imbalance, social monotony and human venality, even, yes, the old saw of dehumanization by technology–in short, the metaphors they should’ve always remained. “All we want are just pretty little homes / Our work makes pretty little homes / Agenda suicide, the drones work hard before they die / And give up on pretty little homes” goes the opening track; “Some people get bit from the inside / When they talk it’s cold and sour / And no, there’s nothing that they can do now / They’ve had their way too many times” goes another. Wrestling with the hackneyed aesthetic and verbiage of postpunk’s impotent children, Baechle generally emerges the winner, neatly tying the authentic emptiness of Ian Curtis to the dark escapist symbology of Peter Murphy.

In the end, however, it’s Danse Macabre’s rich, claustrophobic sound that sets it apart, an addictively danceable fusion of Pornography’s feverish urgency and Entertainment!’s cold dismay–it’s as though someone spiked these kids’ lithium with crystal meth. Thiele has apparently got his hands on every analog sound ever used by anyone, from Giorgio Moroder to Zoviet France to Dead or Alive. Almost every song is choked with effects, lashed to one Kraftwerkian pulse or another, but the sonic topography is unfailingly distinct. Anxious, skittering guitars tremble jaggedly under the swells and washes, like safety pins dragged across a steel plate; the brutally tight rhythm section takes the early Sisters of Mercy playing-against-programming trick to previously unimagined heights. Todd Baechle’s outlandish vocal style, a synthesis of early Robert Smith, Bernard Sumner, Gary Numan, and Simon LeBon, is the finishing touch–a clipped yelp swinging in and out of a raft of vocal effects, tremulous and immediate, then robotically remote.

You can call out every reference percolating through the album’s metallized hum; but the Faint have managed to make the combination contemporary and relevant. Repairing the damaged goods, fulfilling the broken promise of their crippled or all-too-abbreviated forebears, they’re the spectral allure of their sources made flesh.

Though Fischerspooner decry nostalgia, their concept is at worst an exercise in just that: a generalized longing, as DFA Records honcho James Murphy cracks in the caustic ‘clash send-up “Losing My Edge,” “for the unremembered 80s.” The Faint interact with the history they pillage, offering replies to questions left unanswered for 15 years. Nitzer Ebb did suck; Depeche Mode were frustratingly close-to-the-mark losers. Cab Voltaire, TG, and their children were all right, but never lived up to their jivey line of “experimental” bullshit. Soft Cell, the Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, and their ilk were all one-note refinements; Front 242 was a fascinating step into nowhere, and Ministry killed everything it touched. All the best bands did flame or sell out, and the anticipated next wave never emerged. The Faint are what Power, Corruption, and Lies-era New Order might’ve become if they were cool–or Ian hadn’t left Joy Division high and dry–or what the Cure might’ve become if they’d ever caught up with New Order, or what Japan might’ve led to but never did. Fischerspooner is a drolly listenable enterprise, and the show is a knockout; the Faint, however, represent a sort of redemption.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephane Sednaoui, David Kamba.