Grovesnor GrovesnorSoft Return
With records like this, one tends to think that it’s all a killer joke—that it just isn’t possible that at this stage of the game somebody is really coming around to reclaim the AOR pop for stock-market yuppies that filled up a lot of air time on mainstream radio in the 80’s. Listening to Grovesnor is like being taken back in time without previous warning, without concessions, to those days when Patrick Bateman, American Psycho, listened to Phil Collins while cutting up eyeballs with his pocket knife; those days when there were sophisticated parties in Park Avenue luxury apartments and, to dance to, they would play the worst disco music from last season and, as an added bonus, the latest smash hit from Huey Lewis & The News. “Soft Return” is what the title of the first album from Grovesnor indicates: bland (and white) pop, a return to the 80’s of smooth synthesisers, mushy melodies, a dance vocation without getting directly into the electro, disco or synth-pop scene, with lyrics about the comforts of the modern age –if you had a good income– and pretty love stories. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it turns out that “Soft Return” works, in spite of all of this.
Grovesnor is Robert Smoughton, ex-member of Hot Chip, who is now going solo, carrying the revisionism of electronic pop with a kitsch undertone that the English band has been promoting for half a decade even further. That is to say, if the fixation used to be New Order, the main reference to measure the scope and intention of the sound of this misplaced debut is the material signed by Daryl Hall & John Oates. It should come has no surprise that someone quotes them or reclaims them— Chromeo already did that, and so far no one has called for a public execution in the Canadian group’s town square, how ever many detractors they may have picked up along the way. It’s more than likely that in one or another session of vintage synth-pop, one of the many that there have been since electroclash made its way onto the revival map, you might hear an “ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” in the style of DJ Yoda. But with Grovesnor it’s not only a brush of style, a footnote, or a licence of bad/good taste, it’s a constant flow of those songs that seem frozen in a time when the use of PCs still hadn’t spread and we couldn’t even imagine the dawn of the portable telephone.The titles and the lyrics say a lot about Grovesnor’s cryogenic pretensions, using resources like a zapping of FM waves in “Turn Your Radio Up” and images of everyday luxury, like the “Taxi From The Airport” that takes the lover straight to his girl’s arms after a long business trip. But what says the most is the sound: the kind of synthesisers that you play with two fingers, small and manageable. It’s not hard to imagine him with one hanging from his shoulder in the purest Jan Hammer style, playing a solo with a neck of keys, rubbing the upper grip as if it were his manhood. Of course, the voice is sweet and occasionally treated with a vocoder, calling to mind romantic nights with the city skyline lit up in the background, outlined against a big curtain-less window where two lovers embrace and kiss while a glass of wine spills onto the carpet. The arrangements are fine and never invasive: beats under control, bunches of notes in arpeggio, a few keyboard solos and—it could be no other way—the sax panty-ripping that culminates in “Find A Way To Stop Him.” Yes, Hall & Oates appear to have been born again in Grovesnor, who even jumps shamelessly into a tender ballad with “Dragon Tree” and doesn’t die in the attempt.
It might be hard to take “Soft Return” seriously, but there’s no choice: there’s no irony here, and its intention to replicate and pay homage to a period systematically insulted is iron-clad and honest. We listen to “Dan” and have no choice but to think of the Tangerine Dream that composed the soundtrack of the period’s generational film, “Risky Business” (1983), in which an adolescent Tom Cruise yuppie-wannabe organised the party of his life in his parents’ house with a flock of prostitutes. We also listen to “Soft Return,” the song, and have no choice but to check whether this isn’t in reality the opening of the least successful Broadway musical of the 81-82 season. But if we have to indicate an especially well done moment in the album’s retro line, it is “No Doubt About It,” in which Smoughton puts on his best falsetto voice, the keyboards are reasonably similar to those of the old Italian disco hits–an EXTREMELY commercial section of Silver Pozzoli or Gary Low– and the tipped synthesiser chords come straight from the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls.” The result is an undeniable hit, if you can admit that his obsession with the 80’s is masterfully resolved, with knowledge of the material and an honesty that immediately frightens off any suspicion of a bad joke. Yes, Grovesnor sounds retro, and maybe even sappy, and his debut is yet another concession to a nostalgia which, like certain articles of clothing, you only put one for a while before they are forgotten again in the depths of your closet. Does anybody remember Heartbreak now? But this year, some may feel like putting on a white jacket like Don Johnson in “Miami Vice,” going for a ride in their Ferrari with the breeze blowing on their tanned face and through their straw-coloured hair bleached by the sun. They may feel like listening to Grovesnor because, hell, it’s well done and summer is right around the corner.