Johan Agebjörn | Casablanca Nights
God bless Italo Disco! The music, to be sure, but the term even more so. While the classification apparently goes back to at least 1983, it’s only been in the last couple of years that it’s become ubiquitous on indie music blogs and in indie music magazines. This can only be a good thing, because it means that the indie kids want to dance, and they finally want to do it without ironic air quotes being their most commonly used dance move. They just need a good cover story to be able to do so, that’s all.
Now, the idea that music is something to listen to because one enjoys listening to what one enjoys listening to is a no-brainer for the average Ke$ha fan, but indie kids don’t let themselves off so easy. Enjoying something for the sake of enjoying it is a highly suspect concept for the poor dears, and the very thought of it causes their brows to furrow over their Clark Kent glasses, and they stroke their goatees while in deep, pensive thought and tug at the collars of their vintage R. Crumb t-shirts. If they like music just because they like it, how does that make them any different from their Beyonce-loving little sisters? Oh! How dreadful a thought! No, they must be able to show that their musical choices are intellectual ones and not just because they kind of like the tunes on that Fleet Foxes record.
Adding to their conundrum is the fact that they deal in absolutes, which foolishly discounts the reality that pop music tastes are cyclical and if you declare a form of music to be the worst thing ever, five years later it’s going to be the hippest thing going and then you’re stuck scrambling for explanations.
For instance, not that long ago, pre-punk music from the 70’s was deemed beyond redemption. Then indie favorites Grizzly Bear recorded a song with Michael McDonald and Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens were doing stuff that stank more than a little of early ‘70s prog-rock. This was all once considered untouchable, so a new classification – Freak Folk – was conjured up and suitably obscure period artists like Vashti Bunyan and The Incredible String Band were exhumed to serve as more hipster-friendly influences than The Doobie Brothers and Horslips. And voila – order is maintained!
The thankless task of replacing the early ‘70s as the worst musical era ever has since fallen to the poor ‘80s – specifically mainstream ‘80s dance pop. “80s production values” is now the worst insult to be hurled at anything, and Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” has become the standard bearer for all things awful from the era. I don’t mind the song so much myself – it seems like a harmless, happy enough little ditty to me but apparently it’s Satan personified these days.
Or it was, anyhow. Now that “Italo Disco” is in heavy rotation in tastemaker circles, it appears that attitudes are changing once again and they’re turning in favor of the ‘80s mainstream. It just needed to be called something different, and if the only way people can listen to stuff that sounds like Deniece Williams is to claim they like it because it’s descended from obscure (in America) Euro-disco records from 1985, well, whatever gets them through the night. If that’s what it takes to get the cool kids to listen to and enjoy Johan Agebjörn’s Casablanca Nights, at least they’re getting to hear a great album.
Agebjörn is best known as the producer and musical muscle behind Sally Shapiro, the disco thrush whose crippling shyness has made her quirky enough to be adopted by the indie community. Shapiro guests on several songs on Casablanca Nights, notably on “Alice,” where she duets with a chap named Fred Ventura, who I swear is Rick Astley in disguise. Shapiro also takes the lead on the sleek “Casablanca Nights,” which I think probably would’ve sounded pretty good playing in the background while Jennifer Beals dumped a bucket of water on herself.
The vocals on the very 1985 “The Last Day of Summer,” which sounds like the love child of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” and Madonna’s “Borderline,” are handled by someone called Queen of Hearts who definitely does have a voice to heart. The exquisitely sad “Watch the World Go By” features Le Prix and Lake Heartbeat. Outside of Shapiro, I don’t know who any of these dancing Swedes are that guest star on the album, but they all make a pretty good showing for themselves.
The best thing about Johan Agebjörn is that while he uses all the traditional tools of synthesized dance music, he still injects a huge amount of personality and emotion into the proceedings. Agebjörn’s music is made almost entirely on machines, but it never feels like it’s been created by one. Each blip and beep seems chosen to convey some sense of sadness or melancholy. It’s some of the most human music one is likely to hear these days.
So again, three cheers for the seemingly sudden interest in Italo Disco. Casablanca Nights is a great album of great music, and such things should never be considered unfashionable. But if certain music fans need to come up with excuses to be able to enjoy stuff that shouldn’t need justification to enjoy, then it’s all good. If they have to call something that sounds like a goodly chunk of top-40 radio in 1983 Italo Disco in order to be able to enjoy it, at least they’re letting themselves like it. As for me, I think I’m going to see if Flashdance is on Netflix.
Watch the video for “The Last Day of Summer” by Johan Agebjörn featuring Queen of Hearts: