Gone is the heady interplay of horns, disco, and Greek mythology. Instead, Blue Songs offers a club-ready thump, minor-key rhythm chords and sampled shouts of "Go!" and "Come on!" It's rooted far deeper in the Detroit/Chicago influence than the debut. There are a few instruments other than drum machines -- occasional strings or staccato piano notes (echoes of "Strings Of Life") -- but the main body of "My House" is far more representative, all drums and bleeping synth rhythms.
Antony Hegarty and Nomi Ruiz have been swapped out for several new vocalists, including Kele Okereke from Bloc Party. The new guys are mostly less distinctive than the old crew, but they have less to work with. Instead of Antony's unhealthily intense, self-flagellating confessionals, songs like "Visitor" contain stereotypical dancefloor calls and slogans like, "It's no time to stand, it's time to jump." That line is delivered by a flamboyant Eurodance voice resembling the rapper in "Be My Lover" by La Bouche.
Good thing is, without Antony's forceful persona, the vocals can be gentler. Andrew Butler, who sang on the soft and sweet "This Is My Love" on the debut, returns on the very gentle and lovely "Leonora." His vulnerable, slightly plaintive tone on the childlike lines, "Come out and play / Kiss me on this day," combined with the airy but slightly melancholy music, is very affecting. The little circular flourish on piano at the end of the second chorus, while Kim Ann Foxman sighs "She speaks to me," is like a fresh springtime breeze.
Okereke's turn on "Step Up" is another high point. This is the one time the album recalls Antony's prima-donna grand-standing. There's a strong hint of darkness in the lyrics ("there is pain in being real"). The chorus has a positive it's-OK-to-be-yourself message, but Okereke's gentle falsetto has a strangled crack to it, like he's only learned this message after going through some extreme emotional crisis. The music is sparse, with a few bright piano chords providing a splash of sunshine. And dig those awesome, vintage Purple Motion/Skaven synths that pop up in the second half of the chorus! Second Reality 4 Life!
More highlights: "Painted Eyes" uses seductive violins to set a tone of decadent, nocturnal luxury, like the deep blue colour on the album cover. An idea from the debut gets recycled, since the violins repeat a line from "Blind" that was originally played on horns. The vocal, again, doesn't quite have Antony's throaty drive, but is much more delicate. The languorous pace is perfect for swooning in a leather chair while chilling out at an upscale lounge. "My House" has a chorus with the killer pun, "I put my house in order." I am amazed that the Detroit/Chicago pioneers never thought of that. It makes for an amazing hook.
Unfortunately, the album also has some really awful songs, whereas the debut had none. The least bad of these is "Visitor," which I can even enjoy on some level if I can force myself to ignore the hilarious idiocy of that Eurodance chorus. At least it has some dancefloor kick to it. But alas, Blue Songs also has two slow, nearly beatless ballads. "Blue Boy" is a cloying, pastoral bit on acoustic guitar. That style only sounds good if you can play acoustic guitar with a lot of technical skill. Also, this type of song emphasizes the vocalist, so you should also write something better than, "this song is sung for you." Sadly, techno bands typically can't do either of those things, so when they try to write a song like this, it invariably sounds slow, long, and boring (see also the horrible version of "Tessio" on Luomo's second album).
The title track is also slow, and probably should have been only half as long as it is, but at least it has a cool flute/xylophone combo playing in between verses. But things get much worse on "I Can't Wait," an extremely monotonous chugging techno number. Kim Ann Foxman sounds OK with production wizardry to make her voice softer. But here, she tries some kind of loud, bratty snarl, and it sounds terrible, literally unpleasant to the ear. The repetitive lyrics don't help.
And even that's not the bottom of the barrel. I was glad to learn that "It's Alright" is actually a cover. Glad, because it would be unspeakably painful to know that Hercules were responsible for a song asserting that the incredible power of awesome house music will totally bring about world peace, man. I cannot describe to you how much I loathe the lazy, superficial descriptions composed by glancing at this morning's headlines, such as, "Dictations enforced in Afghanistan / People in Eurasia on the brink of oppression" (wait, "on the brink"? you mean they're not quite there?), and then the patronizing, self-important conclusion, "But it's gonna be alright / 'Cause the music plays forever on and on." I dislike many things about this song, even down to the calculated use of populist contractions in "there's one thing fo' sho'" and "givin' me strength." Oh, and it doesn't even have a beat, it wants you to focus on these lyrics.
I try to focus on the good parts. At its best, Blue Songs sounds gentler and nicer than the debut; about half of it is a great follow-up. But I don't think it will hold up as well with time. Even without the really awful songs, the lyrics tend to be less pointed, less personal (except "Step Up"), more vague and stylized. "Answers Come In Dreams" has a cool bass line, but it sounds like the singer is just intoning disconnected phrases, with no narrative or even rhythm to hold them together. I like Larry Heard as much as the next fellow, but it seems that Chicago house is most interesting when someone pushes the envelope a bit more.