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Meow mix
New Order find their inner pop pussycat
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New Order's Web site

Joy Division always sounded like a one-way ticket to oblivion, even in the gauzy haze of hash smoke and acid color trails that my friends and I heard the music through in our college days. Their arrangements were all angles and edges, framing lyrics about alienation, self-destruction, isolation, manipulation, and defeat. We weren’t surprised when in 1980 singer Ian Curtis cashed that ticket and hanged himself. By then — at least to judge by what we heard as each new import pressing arrived at our favorite record shop fresh from Manchester’s Factory — he was already a ghost.

It took a little more than three years for the surviving members of Joy Division, who formed New Order with the addition of synthesizer player Gillian Gilbert, to put Curtis’s suffering spirit to rest — at least in their music. By 1983, when they released Power, Corruption and Lies (Factory/Qwest) and the hit "Blue Monday," which became a best-selling 12-inch dance single in the relatively brief commercial history of such things, they were all hooks and airy textural élan, no angles and edges.

That wasn’t a bad thing, just different. The group made beautiful sounds that inspired the body with their grooves — especially Peter Hook’s catchy and propulsive bass lines — and the mind with their liberating openness. Thanks to the vacuousness of whatever guitarist-singer Bernard Sumner sang, "Blue Monday" and "Love Vigilantes" were blank slates on which any meaning could be scrawled. And that in itself was stimulating. Think of the vacuousness of Bon Jovi, with their snare-drum thunder and their lyrics about steel horses and shots through the heart that give love a bad name. There’s vacuousness that entices the imagination and vacuousness that fences it in.

New Order keep that invitation open on Waiting for the Siren’s Call (Warner Bros.), their second album after a half-decade break that ended with 2001’s Get Ready (Warner Bros.). They’re still merry tweakers, messing with drum programming and sheets of cool sound extracted from synth drones and trim guitar lines — and, of course, Hook’s delicious thrust and clang. And their songs still run clear as water, even when they try to punk things up. As much as "Working Overtime" (it comes before the "special US bonus-track remix" of "Guilt Is a Useless Emotion" that closes Siren’s Call), with its chanted vocal cadence and two-chord chorus, might seem like Iggy Pop to them, to Iggy, it probably sounds like a neutered clone.

That’s not bad either. It’s actually a cute reflection on the nature of New Order’s arrogant, dedicated, nihilistic art punk beginning as Joy Division. They couldn’t crawl back into that dark hole now if a nuclear weapon were speeding their way. Even on "Dracula’s Castle," which was inspired by a spooky old English manse where unfortunates were once tried and sentenced to slaughter, they sound like pop pussycats.

And that’s not bad either, because they’re damned good kitties. The opening "Who’s Joe?", a song about searching for whoever or whatever you want it to be, glides up on a swelling wave of synthesizer and chiming guitar. It’s got one of Sumner’s best vocal melodies; he’s bending and holding notes, which hasn’t always been his strength. Hook’s there, too, right where he should be, dropping little bombs in the verses and pushing the choruses along with a cresting and falling bass line. There’s even a little bonus in a burst of slide guitar that repeats a six-note theme and then disappears, like a spot of tasty chocolate crème accidentally stuffed into a Twinkie.

Not that New Order are Twinkies. They’re Smarties, or rather, smarties who know how to make music that sounds good and sells good too. It doesn’t matter if in "Jetstream" you have no idea what a "jetstream lover" is — the song’s "long live love" sentiment is a fine one, and playfully alliterative. The guitar and bass lines that shuttle in and out and the silly stewardess announcements and backing vocals by Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic are pure sugary icing.

An album made with a committee of producers is usually the kind of horseshit you get from Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. (Don’t kid yourself, that stuff sucks — and I’m throwing Christina Aguilera, the vocal equivalent of Blues Traveler John Popper’s phony harmonica virtuosity, in there too.) But at this point, New Order’s own stylistic compass is so well tuned that even a revolving-door line-up of helmsmen including Stephen Street (Blur, the Smiths), John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Stone Roses), and Stuart Price (Madonna) doesn’t screw things up. Not that any of those guys is a hack, just that many hands on the board almost always raises the stink of old fish. But on Waiting for the Siren’s Call there’s neither fish nor foul. This is brainy easy listening music by a group of middle-aged Brits who’ve shaken their long-gone past and written their own ticket to a land of eternal sunshine.

Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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