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The New Edgy

New York Duo Kudu Makes Pop Songs For Goth Ex-Ravers

By Jess Harvell | Posted 2/22/2006

Throughout the ’80s, dance music was usually a song, tricked out via vamps and cute sound FX but still recognizably pop music. House music changed all that. With the radio a no-fly zone, groove became an end in itself. All sorts of ’90s music sounds antiquated now, ironically because in its race for the future it abhorred that old war-horse: the song. Trip-hop was just hip-hop with the rap lopped off, a genre based on a hole in its center where the song should go.

“Some of it has dance elements,” Sylvia Gordon says of her band Kudu on the phone from New York. “But I don’t know how easy it is to dance to. There’s certain rules for dance music, like it’s gotta be 129 to 132 beats per minute or whatever. I haven’t checked on all that to make sure.”

Kudu, a New York group based around the duo of singer Gordon and drummer/multi-instrumentalist D. Anthony Parks, is stranded in a no man’s land. Like many artists who came of age in the ’90s, the two have dance music’s DNA under their fingernails. (Gordon, for example, has contributed to various projects by house legend Chris Brann.) The music is definitely groove-based, driven by Parks’ beats, which flip from glam-rock simplicity to jazz polyrhythms with a flick of the stick.

But Kudu is also in the business of writing songs. Its forthcoming second album, Death of the Party, has hooks, choruses, and radio-friendly lengths. Gordon’s voice expresses a range of feelings nonrobots will feel comfortable with: lust, desire, pain, regret, humor, anger. Like everything from electroclash to punk-funk, Kudu is part of a generation bringing songs back to dance music, or vice versa.

“I like accessibility,” Gordon says.

Both members of Kudu were born in the South—Parks in Georgia, Gordon “in Louisiana, but I bounced around a lot”—and both attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “The further away from it I get the less it seems to matter,” she says. “But it was just four years of drudgery.” The two fell in love (they’re no longer together) and started playing together, eventually escaping to New York, where a nascent Kudu was signed after its first show. The band recorded an album that it now all but disowns.

“We should have changed the name of the group,” Gordon laughs. “Different people, different times. . . . Things just happened in a really rushed manner.”

But they had finally found a home, New York, more specifically a downtown club called Nublu, a small jazz lounge-cum-talent incubator. (The club’s biggest success to date is the Brazilian Girls, whose airy take on dance music landed them on many an NPR playlist.) Nublu is also a record label that released Kudu’s “Bar Star” single and releases Death of the Party in March.

“We’re pretty different . . . there’s a very Euro-hippie vibe there,” Gordon says of the club. “All their music is kind of experimental jazz and ‘We love art.’ And we’re like the black sheep of the club, but it’s definitely our home base.”

Jazz in dance music is a tricky thing; you’d need a landfill to contain all of the bad records made in the name of electric pianos during the ’90s. But Kudu approaches it from the hips. Parks is an accomplished “straight” jazz drummer who still gigs regularly. “Hot Lava,” from Death of the Party, starts off with the simple push of T. Rex record, but Parks riddles the main stomp with catchy little runs and fills, congas, and cowbells.

The drums on “Leave Me Alone” are grainy yet impossibly loud in the mix, like the pixilated computer caveman beats the Neptunes used to favor. Unlike electroclash, whose audience was often white enough to pass for an Aryan youth rally, Kudu’s mix-up of jazz technique and the beats of modern urban radio is proudly multicultural in an unassuming way.

But it’s Gordon who adds the unexpected third element, a chilly haughtiness that, along with the new-wave keyboards, will have ex-goths checking the liner notes for mention of a Siouxsie Sioux guest spot. At the same time, her roots in both the church and the cabaret lend her vocals a diva’s technique and a soulful gravitas. It’s a nice contrast from the moments when she’s channeling the lost spirits of Deee-Lite and Neneh Cherry.

And what are the songs about? “Just . . . love, lust, stuff like that,” Gordon says with a laugh and an audible shrug. But maybe that “duh” response is kind of the point. Aside from the stuff about wanting to “leave you hot and hard in the graveyard,” listeners who aren’t into vampire porn will be able to latch onto the basic pop smarts of Death of the Party and Kudu’s fiery live show—whether they can dance to it or not.

“There are some dark spots on the album,” Gordon says. “And I think, for us, making pop music is a bit subversive. Some people say, ‘Oh, that band is cool, but they’re not edgy enough.’ But for me, pop is the new edgy, because everyone’s trying to be so extra-cool. For Kudu we’re just trying to keep it up-tempo, and keep it fun.”

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