Circlesquare: Songs About Dancing And Drugs

Circlesquare returns with its sophomore full-length, five years after its 2003 album Pre-Earthquake Anthem and two after the stop-gap Fight Sounds EP. No longer a solo vehicle for Vancouver-born and now Berlin-based Jeremy Shaw (who formed the group in 1997), Circlesquare is now a full-blown band with Shaw joined by guitarist Trevor Lawson and drummer Dale Butterfield. In some ways, Songs About Dancing And Drugs is rather unusual in that it so consistently resists pigeonholing (not a bad thing necessarily); one thing it definitely isn't is a conventional dance recording even if dancing is a recurring theme (there is, on the other hand, a palpably druggy dimension in the material's off-skew, late-night sound). Though the title riffs off of Talking Heads similarly-titled disc, Songs About Dancing And Drugs is also no New Wave retread but a noir-soaked mix that references techno, post-punk, funk, rock, and murder ballads, sometimes during the same song. Central to the Circlesquare sound is Shaw's voice, a sensuous and ominous creature that's often multi-tracked for maximum effect.

The queasy, skeletal-funk of opener “Hey You Guys” comes across—lyrically at least—like a manifesto (“This is it / This is us / Here we go”) though the guitar-spiked musical attack is restrained, not anthemic—the choice others might have gravitated towards in their declarations of purpose. But not Circlesquare, which instead opts for dreamy seduction. The seven songs that follow pursue a diverse set of strategies and poses: handclaps and funky rhythms appear in “Dancers” but the tune as much darts through sleazy back alleys as plants itself at the club's center, while acidy synthesizer works its way into “Ten To One” but it's anything but an acid dance track either. In its bluesy opening minutes, “Timely” commands attention with nothing more than finger-snaps, handclaps, acoustic guitar, and Shaw's voice before swelling into an alluring, electronic chant of viral character. “Music For Satellite” emerges from the darkness of a two-toned string motif and radio transmissions and then turns into a menacing dirge where Shaw distractedly murmurs “I'll get lost up there,” as if believing that by uttering the words he'll somehow escape the hell of terra firma; the song's portentous vibe is reinforced by a briefly shuddering vocal that can't help but recall Donovan's “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” “Bombs Away, Away” pairs a skeletal, slo-mo electro-funk pulse with a lazy, sing-along chorus and even a trumpet solo; belying the title, the song is sometimes so exhausted it feels on the verge of collapsing. In “All Live But The Ending,” a bleepy groove (“So let's all go out dancing tonight”) morphs into a swinging shuffle that grows ever-more trance-like as the song's thirteen-minute running time unspools, until the comedown inevitably sets in. On this both haunted and haunting recording, it's hard to ignore the sense of dread lurking in the shadows, no matter how stable things appear on the surface. The thing that'll stay with you long after everything else fades is Shaw's voice, a cryptic organism that insidiously creeps into your thoughts and plants its paranoiac seed.

January 2009