CD: The Rapture: Echoes

(Vertigo)

You can hardly have failed to notice that rock music has recently become obsessed with the past. It has been ever thus - there was a 1950s revival in the early 1970s - but what marks out the current wave of musical grave-robbers is their desire to dig from the most obscure corners of rock history.

With the standard classic influences exhausted by Britpop, artists are turning to genres previously considered beyond the pale. Goth is topping the charts, courtesy of Evanescence. There are unconfirmed rumours of a revival of psychobilly, the preposterous 1980s hybrid of punk and rock'n'roll. And there is a resurgence of interest in punk-funk.

A defiantly odd movement that emerged in early 1980s Britain, punk-funk featured bands called things like Josef K and Gang of Four engaging in frantic efforts to fuse distorted new-wave guitars, disco's relentless beat and avant-garde explorations of modern jazz. Punk-funk bands had a penchant for charity shop suits, the 1930s short-back-and-sides, and lyrics about Marxism, Kafka and Dadaism. It was an understandable hit with the music press, which at the time was solely populated by journalists incapable of reviewing the latest Bucks Fizz single without referencing Roland Barthes's Elements of Semiology. Despite their best efforts, the general public steered clear.

Arcane, uncommercial, utterly a product of its era: it's hard to think of a genre less ripe for revival, which probably explains why punk-funk has become achingly hip once more. The foremost new punk-funkers are the Rapture, whose 2002 singles, House of Jealous Lovers and Olio, earned the New York-based quartet the unfortunate sobriquet of "The Disco Strokes". The Rapture's secret weapon is the patronage of New York production duo DFA: Death From Above.

When left to their own devices, the Rapture offer splenetic bursts of jerky guitar, funk basslines and, less lovably, eruptions of honking jazzy sax. However, Echoes really swings into life when DFA take control and weld the guitars and bass to house beats and gently pulsing electronic bleeps. It's a brave move. House music's critical and commercial stock has never been lower.

In addition, previous attempts to meld rock and house have strongly suggested the two are as complementary as oil and water. Those who couldn't afford psychiatric counselling to eradicate its horrible memory may recall the Purple Kings' erroneously-named That's The Way You Do It, a 1996 hit which featured pumping dancefloor beats lashed clumsily to - deep breath - Dire Straits' Money For Nothing. Yet here, the combination works perfectly. The reason house music's stock has never been lower is its failure to reinvent itself - its adherents haven't had a fresh idea in years. The unreasonably thrilling House of Jealous Lovers and I Need Your Love rattle along, powered by a sense of unlikely innovation: they genuinely sound different, which is far more than you can say for most dance music in 2003.

Nevertheless, there are problems, not least singer Luke Jenner, who is big on a noise long thought extinct in rock music, the Alienated Yelp. Pioneered two decades ago by The Cure's Robert Smith, the Alienated Yelp attempts to convey existential despair via a distressingly thin wail, plus sudden surges in volume and pitch that suggest the vocalist is on the verge of tears.

Prolonged exposure to the Alienated Yelp can make listeners feel like having a little cry as well, but this doesn't seem to have deterred Jenner. He deploys the Alienated Yelp at curiously inopportune moments. "Shakedown!" he wails on House of Jealous Lovers, exhorting his audience to boogie in a voice that suggests he has just had a much-loved pet put to sleep.

By the time we reach the title track, Jenner has taken to substituting words with startling gutteral shrieks. Whether this is meant to signify that his anguish transcends language or merely to divert attention from the fact that Echoes is entirely nicked from Public Image Limited's 1980 track Careering is unclear. "I put on lipstick, the price is WEAAAURK!" he screams. It sounds like a prankster has crept into the vocal booth and is repeatedly goosing him. On the rare occasions when Jenner stops chewing the scenery, the band slip into neutral: the album's three ballads are nothing to write home about.

Quite aside from the vocals, the title track's wholesale lift from John Lydon's other band highlights the air of mild disappointment that hangs over the Rapture's album and the punk-funk revival in general. Whatever criticisms could be levelled at the original punk-funk bands, playing jazz-influenced songs about Marxism and Kafka while dressed like minor characters from a George Orwell novel, a lack of originality was not among them.

Their aim was to transform diverse influences into a new and startlingly alien sound. Slavishly copying it 20 years on seems to be missing the point entirely. Echoes works only when it grasps punk-funk's spirit, rather than its sound.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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