In the indie music world, genres are a matter of fashion. Some are perpetual underdogs, yet eminently rehabilitatable, rife with schizmed sub-genres that remain sources of cred (metal, I’m looking at you). Revivals may succeed (hi, minimal wave), but to gain attention, to be worthy of critical and press consideration, they need to be seen to always already tap into a preexisting zeitgeist or to represent an originally-authentic moment. We postmodernists have supposedly moved beyond the period in which certain genres were definitively beyond the critical pale, yet there are undeniably uncool corners of the present-day music world. These produce music that remains interesting only to a small subset of obsessives, yet that has not managed to capitalize on the cultural capital of the fact that (if thought about at all) it’s perceived as “interesting only to a small subset of obsessives.”
Neo-Italo disco belongs to this latter. Certain classes of 80s have more than had their (Groundhog) day: John Carpenter-esque synth horror pseudo-scores, commercial synthpop, the abovementioned minimal wave. But despite the deserved success of ventures like Italians Do It Better, those producing a classic Italo sound, particularly in its more upbeat manifestation, aren’t often thought worthy of critical consideration. Although lamentable, this is perhaps weirdly appropriate, given that original Italo artists were often anonymous, recording under mononyms or unlikely Americanized pseudonyms, encompassing various vocalists, products of studios and producers — though this description also denies the agency of singers who, for a single moment, brought into being deep affect both endlessly reproducible and endlessly forgettable in the maw of the pop archives.
Sally Shapiro, one of few neo-Italo artists to gesture toward critical recognition, maintains this tradition: the moniker itself is a nom de disque for a duo composed of the elusive “Shapiro” herself and Johan Agebjörn. Shapiro’s work, with its echoes of trance and Scandipop, is more thoroughly pop-oriented than that of the crew at Valerie, absent the lo-fi crackle, understatement, and hints of darkness we associate with Italians Do It Better.
This is Shapiro’s third outing; their first album, 2006’s Disco Romance, set an impossibly high bar, a classic disco diamond. That piece, rather than attempting to recreate nostalgia through synthesized vinyl surface noise or lo-fi synth minimalism, reproduced under the sheeny sign of contemporary production values Italo’s killing combination of unapologetically dance-oriented beats and hooky synth riffs with a tentative, fragile pensiveness and affective ambivalence. Where many 80s-influenced musicians seem to think that the choice of atmosphere over melody demonstrates sophistication, Disco Romance revealed this as a false dichotomy.
Taken as a piece, Somewhere Else can’t live up to those giddy heights, but its sweetness is still to be savored. It extends the template just a little, in moments like the electro-funk of the cutely but awkwardly named “This City’s Local Italo Disco DJ Has A Crush On Me.” Shapiro’s work is often described as “shiny” or “plastic,” but the point with this music is precisely the contrast between that surface and the aching vulnerability of the vocals — indeed, this contradiction describes precisely how it is that “surface” is inherently melancholy. Sine qua non Blade Runner. Tracks from the lingering “I Dream With An Angel Tonight” to the glistening momentum of “If It Doesn’t Rain Tonight” fulfill this promise. Somewhere Else, a robotic fist in a velvet g/love, will gratify the emotional masochism of those who paradoxically long to possess loss, who yearn for yearning, who dance with tears in their eyes.