In the early '80s, at the height of the Specials' popularity in Britain's second wave of ska, three of the band's members broke away to form a very different group, Fun Boy Three. By their second and final album, 1983's "Waiting," David Byrne was producing and they were really getting into something -- brooding, deadpan vocals coolly buzzing over icy keyboards and lively, mildly world-inspired beats. U.S. listeners might have heard the album's single, possibly on one of a thousand '80s compilations, a dirge-like reading of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed" (which two of the Three had written, with Jane Wiedlin). Their success, which continued later in a new trio called Colour Field, was in achieving a delicate balance between the chilly synthesized sounds and the warmer percussion and human tones. "Our Lips Are Sealed" sounds at once dreadfully dour but also remarkably light and buoyant.
This is also the success of Cut Copy, particularly on the Australian quartet's newest and third album, "Zonoscope."
Like "Bright Like Neon Love" (2004) and "In Ghost Colours" (2008) before, "Zonoscope" hums forward through 11 songs almost as if they were a single track. It's not the mix that unites them, it's the mood -- which is why this is so often the dance-music band loved by people who say they don't like dance music. DJ-singer Dan Whitford (who started all this a decade ago with a single tellingly titled "1981") coos like Bryan Ferry or Martin Gore over a steady mix of dated synths, occasional hints at psychedelia and reliable, very basic rhythms. The most passionate he gets is the near yelping of "Alisa," a song that sounds like a mashup of the Lightning Seeds and Echo & the Bunnymen. "Take Me Over" is a plea for wider acceptance, with a springy rhythm and bass line borrowed nearly complete from Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere"; it's the most uniformly sunny disposition on an album that otherwise contrasts the mood of the words and the music. At the end is the 15-minute "Sun God," a head-lolling epic of blessed-out, tribal '80s "12-inch remix" nostalgia.
It's summer Down Under. This record and its unbearable lightness made for great listening during last week's snowmageddon. Now with LCD Soundsystem announcing its looming retirement, "Zonoscope" may serve as Cut Copy's bid to assume the rule of the retro-hipsters.