Tag Archives: gay culture

Hercules And Love Affair – Blue Songs

Andy Butler from Hercules and Love Affair
Image by acedout via Flickr
The eponymous debut from Hercules And Love Affair was the ultimate album to wallow in your own self-pity to. Charting the rise and fall of gay disco culture, from Studio 54 at its peak to the pitiless devastation of AIDS, the album was a loving and sybaritic pastiche, importing the sounds and sensations of a bygone era.
Around half of the troupe’s follow-up, Blue Songs, wants to be similarly anecdotal and reminiscent. Beguiling opening track “Painted Eyes” introduces us to the album’s secret emotional weapon, Venezuelan-born singer Aerea Negrot, whose intonation is as exotic as her background would suggest. Over an urgent rhythm and string arrangement, the lyrics are elegant and yearning – a trick Negrot repeats a couple of tracks later on the soulful “Answers Come In Dreams”.
At its most ambitious moments, Blue Songs is a triumph. The brace of songs that form the centrepiece, “Boy Blue” and “Blue Song”, are autobiographical compositions, and hearken back to very un-obvious forebears. The former is an acoustic strum written as a paean to Sinéad O’Connor, which builds to an echoing climax; the latter is a lazily tropical number with woodwind, Jew’s harp, and polyrhythms galore.
The trouble is, the other half of the album follows more base desires, with more rote and predictable outcomes. The rot begins with “Falling”, which deals in the same musical tropes Hercules And Love Affair have employed to better effect elsewhere, and reaches crisis point on “Visitor”, which is about as interesting as listening to a dishwasher for five minutes. H&LA main man Andy Butler usually wears his influences on his sleeve, but here the sticky fingers of Mark Pistel and Patrick Pulsinger are present not only in spirit but in person too. If anything, this invitation to collaborate robs the songs of their excitement.
The album closes on an even weirder note, with a wobbly cover of the Sterling Void song “It’s Alright”, popularised by the Pet Shop Boys in 1989. The effect is haunting, with Butler’s adolescence and futurism colliding via the strangely dispassionate singing of his partner-in-crime Kim Ann Foxman.
My admittedly high expectations of Blue Songs have not been matched fully in the album’s execution. Butler has shown he can write music that evokes the spirit of old-school disco, but here, all too often, he looks to a different historical period; one that he is unable to recreate so well, in spite of its obvious significance in his personal development. A missed opportunity.
Pick ‘n’ mix: My House, Answers Come In Dreams, Boy Blue.
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Love Affair with Hercules

My love of Fabriclive.36 has got me into trouble before – apparently it’s not appropriate to like both Gang of Four and also Daniel Wang. This hasn’t put me off owning up to being unabashedly besotted with Hercules and Love Affair, a disco-revivalist collective who I tipped for wider fame back in 2007, when I first heard their debut single, “Classique #2”. It was b/w “Roar”, and I almost instantly recognised the vocal stylings of Antony Hegarty, which were woven into the fabric of the track. A year later, their self-titled debut hit the shelves and I think I was proved right. Shame that my other tip from that season (Syclops, if you’re interested) never came to much.

Anyway, I hear there’s a new H&LA album coming out in January, entitled Blue Songs, which is close enough for me to start raving on about them all over again. So gently close your bedroom door, put on your dancing shoes, and play the video above, which sees the troupe blaze through “Hercules Theme” in front of a staggeringly beautiful Chicago dusk.

Alongside the glamour and divahood, what attracted me to H&LA’s music was the unmissable waft of tragedy buried in it. Cleverly dressing songs up in Greek mythology is one way of alluding to “how horribly it [the disco scene that the music references] all ended”, to quote Alexis Petridis. Just as the image of Hercules wandering the island in search of his lost love proves upsetting for H&LA main man Andrew Butler, to me, their music is infused with a gentle yet irrevocable descent into sadness and miasma (in the ancient Greek sense of the word).

“Facilis descensus Averni”

Easy is the descent into hell, says Virgil, and Hercules and Love Affair is a lush and dancefloor-ready document of this descent. The album begins almost in torch-song mode, with Antony wailing “I cannot hold half a life / I cannot be half a wife” – a stark warning to those on the path of hedonism and debauchery. Following this prelude, the first half of the album has an overwhelming feeling of pleasure to it, from the refracted mantra of “You Belong”, to the decadent horns and clavinet in “Hercules Theme”. The bridging point is undoubtedly “Blind”, in which Antony reminds us once again of what will befall our protagonist, and, by implication, his history, over the top of strings, horns, and rattling electronics.

In his June 2008 interview with Heiko Hoffman, Andrew Butler recalled talking to the owner of “bizarre” clothes shop Smylon Nylon, who also made mixtapes containing Arthur Russell, Cerrone and Telex, among others. Butler quotes the owner, Chris Brick, as taking him aside and saying,

“Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!”

Hercules and Love Affair sees Butler bringing to fruition the task that Brick bestowed upon him.

From there on in, the music takes a queasier, more unsettling turn. To quote Petridis again, “Aids brought the disco era’s freewheeling hedonism to a terrible close”, and songs like “Easy” and “This Is My Love” bear testament to these latter days. The former track is an exercise in rawness, as an unnaturally low-pitched Antony intones a mournful lullaby amidst a collage of detuned synths and clattering percussion that sounds like tennis shoes squeaking off the court. This is closer to the territory of Hegarty’s day job of fronting Antony and the Johnsons, albeit with an electronic slant.

The album closes with the uncharacteristically goofy “True/False, Fake/Real”, but there’s truly no escaping the alluring tragedy that the rest of the record deals in. It’s like the history lesson you always wanted to hear.

You belong: yes, you belong!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I can’t really believe I haven’t blogged about Hercules And Love Affair yet, particularly since I practically discovered them. Well, almost.

Way back in early September 2007, I decided, on a whim, to pay a visit to the DFA’s Myspace. Not being overly fond of Mr. Murdoch’s social networking empire, I did so warily, mainly in an attempt to see if my favourite label at the time had signed anyone interesting. Pretty much the first thing I heard upon navigating my way there was the sparse and beautiful “Roar”, by Hercules And Love Affair. I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but I knew profoundly from that moment that they were going to be big. There was something ethereal and elusive about the music: the way Antony Hegarty’s breathy moans were encircled by gurgling bass and whirring synths; the locked-in beat that was clearly emanating from a TR-909. It was instantly racy, sensual and, well, pretty gay.

In an interview with Pitchfork, the creative force of the whole escapade, Andy Butler, spoke of visiting a clothes store called Smylon Nylon, where the shopkeeper took great care in choosing the music played in the store. Upon meeting Butler, and noting his conscientious love of the music, he said, “Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!” It is this feeling of cultural history, and the undiscovered, supposedly tainted, history of gay culture in New York, which imbues virtually all of Hercules & Love Affair’s music. Their eponymous debut, released early last year, not only draws upon several decades of dance music history, but also succeeds in alluding to the societal concerns of Butler, and the scene he tries to represent. In the same interview, Butler recalled that “When making this record Antony always told me that I should draw from my experience and draw from who I am for the lyrics. He said that it’s important to be sincere”, and the thematic concerns in tracks like “Blind” and “Athene” certainly intrigue the listener on a greater level than just the precision and joy of the music. It is a truly important album, in that it brings an oft-forgotten tranche of music and history into a mainstream audience, and with an irresistable sensuality and sense of emotion.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch the band on their all-too-short tour last year (though, judging by their locations, it might not necessarily have been an comfortable experience for an impartial and thematically uninvolved fan). Luckily, they’ve recorded a fantastic session for Pitchfork.tv, which shows just how wonderfully the elastic grooves of the album have been translated into a live setting. With an eight-piece band in front of him (but sadly no appearances from Antony), Andy Butler’s music has taken on a renewed sense of euphoria and nostalgia, albeit at the expense of some of the haunting sorrow and emotional heartbreak that fills a good portion of the album. I can only hope this troupe of performers continues to make such brilliant music.