Can You Define Irony?

Written by Saby Reyes-Kulkarni on . Posted in Posts.

“DEARLY BELOVED,” DECLARES the heavily synthesized voice that opens Datarock’s sophomore album, Red, “we are gathered here today…” If that sounds strikingly familiar—as in, lifted wholesale from Prince—make no mistake: It is.

Once again, the Norwegian electro-rock outfit’s creative nucleus, bandleader Fredrik Saroea and co-founder Ketil Mosnes, have a free-for-all making blatant pop-culture references. In one form or another, Michael Jackson, David Byrne, Molly Ringwald and her late chaperone John Hughes all make red-carpet appearances on Red’s crowded dance floor. And whether they’re referenced in the songs or the videos, you can see them coming a mile away.Then there’s the band’s Devo-inspired visual aesthetic (the members of Devo are approving fans) and fascination with primitive computer technology, all of which appear to serve a mission to make the music sound dated on purpose. On Red, much like the band’s 2005 debut Datarock Datarock, thick synths and Spartan beats are custom-designed to get the audience to party like it’s 1979.

So, as the album commences with its nod to Purple Rain, listeners should expect another intentionally clumsy homage to the dawn of the information age as an excuse for orgiastic celebration of sweat and technology, right?

Not exactly. Sure, in concert, the track-suited band (now expanded to a quartet) goes the extra mile to get you to move your ass.The music, which benefits greatly from the increased density of a live setting, is certainly invigorating enough, and it’s hard to resist following the band’s example as they leap and bound all over the stage.

But Saroea (AKA Rock Steady Freddy) insists that there’s more to Datarock than simple retro-futurist disco camp. And, if you stop shaking it long enough to pay attention, the proof lies right there in the music. Indeed, Saroea and Mosnes (who shares in the writing and creative direction but no longer tours with the band) manage to turn the familiar vocabulary of 1980s pop flotsam into a dialect all their own. Somehow, their winking, tongue-in-cheek style swerves just short of irony, which in high enough doses would certainly date the music, all right—to right now.

It should be considered no small feat that Datarock has avoided the predictable fate of flash-in-the-pan novelty when the band’s main goals have been to get the audience sweating first and laughing second, all while wearing funny costumes. But Saroea maintains that he’s trying to provoke thought too. If you listen hard enough, he says, you’ll hear suggestions of The Fall,Yellow Magic Orchestra and Thomas Dolby’s production work lurking within the grooves.

“On this album,” Saroea explains, “we really felt a lot of pressure to be that sunny band that references John Hughes films. He just passed away, so with all due respect, that’s not really what we’re all about.We wanted to somehow keep that theme intact and change it around a little, and themeicize the late ‘70s, early ‘80s in a different way. Because the early ‘80s weren’t really about Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. Just like the ‘90s weren’t about Britney Spears.”

Datarock’s obviousness does not, as it turns out, mask a deeper cynicism. In fact, Saroea is anything but ironic about the future.

“In the process of making this album,” says Saroea, who at 33 is old enough to remember life before the Internet, “I realized how insanely exciting a period of time in cultural evolution that period was. Some of the groundbreaking stuff that was going on back then has fully blossomed now. I very vividly remember when I got my first computer, which was a Sharp MZ-700, and then a Commodore 64.We had some imagination of what the computer age would be, but modern life is beyond the wettest dreams of any computer geek in the early ’80s!”

> Datarock

Sept. 17, Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 212-414-5994; 8, $15