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High anxiety
Adult’s 21st-century electro-pop

Some of pop’s most recognizable handclaps are embedded in Motown grooves, and it’s probably no coincidence that they were among the first to be faked. On the Supremes’ " Baby Love, " producer Paul van Dyke rigged a series of two-by-fours to simulate the sound of a clapping choir, minting one of the great rhythmic aphrodisiacs of the 20th century. In the era of electronically synthesized music, the clap became abstracted. Drum-machine claps went " clop clop " — more of a horse-hoof-on-clay trot, but the audience understood what the machines were getting at. That " clop " has become ubiquitous as a rhythmic accent in dance music, but in electro — the futuristic, synthetic boogie that for a brief time in the mid ’80s (after live-band production became passé, and before the advent of the digital sampler) was almost synonymous with the sound of hip-hop — it became the very foundation of the beat.

If electro was almost exclusively the domain of hip-hop in the ’80s, 21st-century electro revivalists have remembered that Afrika Bambaataa’s touchstone " Planet Rock " took its futurism from Kraftwerk: at its best, electro represents one of the great pop fusions of American urban grit with European intellectual distance. The Detroit neo-electro husband-and-wife duo Adult (their Web site bills them as " ADULT. " ) have seized on that tradition as the foundation of a dance music devoted to the suffocating sterility, paranoia, and automation of modern life, with a disembodied, dispassionate voice — Nicola Kuperus’s deadpan monotone conjures visions of a woman whose mouth continues to move after her heart has gone silent — singing over whiplash, street-smart robofunk.

Both members of Adult, who play the Paradise next Thursday, have art degrees: Kuperus in photography, Adam Lee Miller, formerly of the electro group Le Car, in painting. Their label is called Ersatz Audio, and its motto exults " The Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow. " Their idea is to make music that is 100 percent synthetic, a conceit that is a send-up of rock’s quest for authenticity and also that quest’s mirror. But the concept has never gotten in the way of the music. A few early singles dabbled in artsy abstraction, but since then they’ve embraced pop’s functionalism; whatever else they may want from you, they want you to dance.

Adult have kept electro’s sleek, clean lines, its minimalism, and its dogged repetition while borrowing liberally from a generation’s worth of electronica innovation. Still, they value electro’s limitations: the unrelenting sterility of its production values, the two-dimensionality of digital compression, the antiseptic grooves. Their latest album is called Anxiety Always, but the title might as easily have applied to their first disc, Resuscitation (both Ersatz Audio), a compilation of two years’ worth of singles and EPs. Although they shun the human touch of live instruments, their lyrics are directly descended from the model of Gang of Four’s Entertainment — clever cultural critiques that take the form of numb recitations in the voice of consumerist zombies. " Do you like my handbag?/It’s filled with lots of money, " a zonked Kuperus drones on Resuscitation’s " Pressure Suit. " " I want to spend my money on entertainment. "

Both Kuperus and Miller are self-confessed punk fans, and though in its themes Anxiety is not as coherent as its predecessor, the new album expands on the punk-like structure of Resuscitation’s " Human Wreck. " The disc’s best song, " Glue Your Eyelids Together, " is driven by a distorted bass line and a syncopation that suggests hardcore, albeit with the sonic palette of a vintage videogame: ponk, anyone?

And in the wake of the Rapture’s " House of Jealous Lovers " single, Adult are now in demand as interpreters of post-punk for the dance floor. On their excellent 2001 debut, Other Animals, the San Francisco group Erase Errata, led by singer/trumpeter Jenny Hoyston, underpin scratchy, panic-stricken guitar swarms with a stiff punk-funk rhythm section. On EE’s new Dancing Machine (both Troubleman Unlimited), an EP of remixes, Adult’s version of the band’s " Marathon " stays surprisingly faithful to the original. Yes, there’s a skittish electro rhythm track and a few stray clops, an ominous, newly inserted keyboard riff, and an emphasis on Hoyston’s voice that brings her to the fore, like a diva. But the song’s percolating bass-line drip is replicated with a deep-pocketed synth algorithm, and its wiry guitar figure resurfaces as a recurring motif, like a mechanical-animal version of the Breeders. It’s a reminder that whereas Anxiety finds Adult sounding more like a rock band than ever, rock seems willing to meet them halfway.

Erase Errata perform at Axis this Saturday, April 19; call (617) 262-2437. Adult perform at the Paradise next Thursday, April 24; call (617) 423-NEXT.

Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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