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The Pleasure Principle

Playgroup Reconstructs an Idealistic Aural Snapshot of the Early '80s

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 3/20/2002

Slit-sleeved polyester blouses, coffee-table books on Pac-Man-era video games, "fashion mullets"--yep, the cultural-nostalgia cycle has now landed on the spot marked early '80s. We've been here before, with those and oh-so-wacky kids and their vicissitudes of style. But there's something else at work here, something having to do with a link between that time and this one--something that seems like more than just the culture-recycling train spinning its wheels. Most of it is due to the sense that we're all fucked and there's nothing we can do about it, so we might as well party like it's 1999. World destruction, our lives ain't nothing, the human race is becoming a disgrace--you know, that old song and dance.

Thing is, the '80s that seems most potent doesn't have a "Big" in front of it. The biggest recollected thrills come not from MTV coif bands but the era's not-ready-for-Drive-Time players: hip-hop when it hadn't yet conquered New York, much less the world; postpunk's nerve-wracked funk beats; the stripped-down post-disco of club records like Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat"; early electro; post-roots, pre-digital reggae. With hindsight, we know much of this music to be a stepping stone between one epoch and another (disco and house, disco and hip-hop, Marley and Barrington Levy). It feels fresh now in large part because these were styles in transition, not yet fixed. In them you can hear a world up for grabs, a sense of raw possibility whose tension feeds off its in-between-ness. Pit those sounds against each other, as the era's best DJs (Larry Levan, for instance) became legendary for doing, and the sparks fly even higher.

This is the '80s as remembered, and reconstructed, by Playgroup, the multiartist brainchild of veteran U.K. hip-hop producer/remixer Trevor Jackson, which releases its self-titled debut on Source/ Astralwerks this week. Like Daft Punk's '70s-drenched Discovery, Playgroup feels less like nostalgia than a reclamation of something that didn't get finished the first time, a meta-version of the energies surging through the '80s air. Or, more to the point, an extrapolation of what those energies sound like today.

The difference is that Daft Punk swoons for the arena rock and disco it reconfigures in part because the band members are too young to remember the real thing. Not only was Jackson actually around for the era he reclaims, his primary collaborator on the album is Edwyn Collins, the ex-frontperson of a band, Orange Juice, that helped mark the period in question. (Collins plays rhythm guitar on nearly every Playgroup track and sings "Medicine Man.") So it figures that Playgroup's methodology is more straightforward, less romantic. It never sounds overwhelmed by its creation the way Daft Punk does.

That's appropriate, because the hallmark of the past being recapitulated on Playgroup is grittier and more bareknuckled than Daft Punk's massive sonics, if just as flashy in its way. Basically, the album sounds like a killer early-'80s mix tape--S.O.S Band, Slits, Spoonie Gee, Mikey Dread, Human League, Scritti Politti, Prince, Pete Shelley--as replayed, and in the process cross-pollinated, by a single band. (Played, not sampled: According to Jackson, approximately 80 percent of the music was performed live.) That mixture is crucial; it's one reason the album doesn't feel like a series of pastiches, why the grooves' gargantuan dub bass lines, skittering drumbeats, and sharp, disco-fied rhythm guitar feel all of a piece. Another is that Jackson's constructions bleed enthusiasm for his sources, especially when he borrows them outright. Playgroup's lovely "Pressure" is built on a sample of R&B iconoclast Joi's "Sunshine and the Rain," while "Too Much" is essentially a loop from Scritti Politti's "Sex."

The masterstroke, though, is Jackson's revolving vocal chair. Having different singers on nearly every song helps keep Playgroup in the mix-tape realm, but it's also a shrewd conceptual device. Jackson has said that he intentionally filled the album with powerful women, and there's something righteous about hearing Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna shouting "Bring It On" over the kind of loping dub-funk groove her band hasn't relaxed enough yet to try. Or ex-Thee Headcoatee Kyra LaRubia demanding satisfaction in no uncertain terms on the Eurodisco stomp "Make It Happen." (The Chemical Brothers recently dissed this track in Tower Records' Pulse! magazine for being too monolithic, to which one can only reply: What the hell do you call Dig Your Own Hole's "It Doesn't Matter," guys?)

It also allows Jackson to go for the outlandish, like turning New York dancehall toaster Shinehead and legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell loose on Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," or getting early-'90s hip-house MC K.C. Flightt to chant the corniest rap, like, ever on "Front 2 Back." ("Hip-house and jazz/ Percussion and bass/ And some razzamatazz"--Jay-Z, do not call your lawyer.) If all these songs did were approximate earlier styles, they'd be unbearable. Instead, they've got an almost shocking amount of staying power: Twenty-five listens in, they just get more endearing, more fun. The triumph of Playgroup isn't how well its tracks recall a bygone era, but how skillfully they fit themselves into this one.

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