Booka Shade: The Sun & The Neon Light
Get Physical

Two years on from the seminal Movements, fans have every reason to be anticipating The Sun & The Neon Light with the greatest of expectations. Like it or not, Booka Shade is faced with the formidable challenge that confronts any band following up a career-defining album: should the group try to re-capture Movements' glory by repeating the formula and risk being criticized for playing it safe, or dramatically shift gears but then court criticism for abandoning prematurely a style that brought it such acclaim? The Sun & The Neon Light suggests that Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier have opted for the latter strategy and, though the new collection, the group's third, is sophisticated, immaculately groomed, and teeming with polished arrangements, when the history of the band is eventually written, it's Movements that will be remembered as the far more satisfying statement. The reason is simple: The Sun & The Neon Light is largely bereft of the deep melodic hooks that made Movements' “Mandarine Girl,” “Night Falls,” “In White Rooms,” and “Body Language” so memorable. One listens to The Sun & The Neon Light in vain for similar riches to re-emerge and when they do occur they do so rarely; in fact, it's only with the advent of the seventh song “Charlotte” that Movements' entrancing club vibe returns in a euphoric electro-disco tune replete with hand-claps and a vocodered refrain (“I never said I was true!”); the only other track that re-visits the club is “Planetary” which works the stylophone, a ‘70s synthesizer once used by Kraftwerk, into its groove.

“Outskirts” opens the album with a cinematic scene-setter where orchestral strings drench the song's tech-house vibe with nocturnal atmosphere—a promising opener though the dearth of melodic hooks doesn't bode well. With the overture now finished, the listener anticipates the album's first melodically-charged composition in the second song “Duke” (a reference to John Carpenter's Escape To New York) but the moment doesn't come: instead we get more brooding atmosphere. The country-tinged “Dusty Boots” starts promisingly but focuses more on guitar-spiked groove than melody. The album's gothic dimension moves to the forefront in “Control Me” with Merziger's nasally vocal (one of four songs featuring singing) paired with a driving, synth-heavy groove that gradually morphs into an ‘80s-styled fusion of electro-pop and New Wave. Supported by piano and acoustic guitar, his softer vocal delivery in the too-polite "Solo City” seems to come from underwater. The schaffel-styled “Psychameleon” finds Booka Shade temporarily re-locating to the electro-glam territory explored on Goldfrapp's Supernature, the title track immerses the listener in the filmic ambiance that overly dominates the album, and the Latin-flavoured “Comacabana” is, as its title suggests, sleepy by design, but the track doesn't do much to enliven an album that could do with more not less of enlivening. Merziger composed the heartfelt lullaby closer “You Don't Know What You Mean To Me (J's Lullaby)” while his newborn son slept beside him, the song's breathing noises actually originating from the accordion that was used in the video for Samim's “Heater.” The funky, broken beat lope of “Sweet Lies” offers a nice change of pace and the group's signature bass lines surface occasionally—in “Solo City” and “Karma Car”—but by themselves such moments aren't enough to raise the album to Movements' heights.

If Movements was Booka Shade's club album, The Sun & The Neon Light is its mature song-based counterpart, an hour-long suite of exquisitely-arranged material. But while Movements exudes a seaside breeziness, the duo's third album is largely lugubrious—a seeming soundtrack to a rainy day. The choice is clear: listeners hungry for Booka Shade's melodic artistry should proceed directly to Movements; those preferring a polished hour of electronic songs that are long on atmosphere but short on hooks could do a whole lot worse than The Sun & The Neon Light.

May 2008