It’s unfortunate that the rallying cry of rockers in the late ’70s was “disco sucks.” This predisposition against anything dance-oriented prevented numerous musicians from exploring new ideals that could have pushed them past mediocrity, instead leaving many mired in reactionary trad-rock poses and delusions of grandeur. Even thirty years later, most artists who incorporate slippery bass lines and danceable guitar rhythms into their music do so with a level of winking detachment, a (somewhat despicable) attitude that they’re better than their own material. Hail Social’s Modern Love and Death, then, presents an interesting question: is it possible to successfully record a disco album in 2007 without any pretense, irony, or false affectation?
Well, sorta. See, Modern Love and Death isn’t a full-blooded homage to Saturday Night Fever – the vocal harmonies are closer to AM Gold than the Bee Gees, and traces of their post-punk aping debut sneak into some tracks, especially on the album’s decidedly weaker second half. These quibbles over whether the album is disco or dance-punk miss the point, though—its most appealing characteristic is tied to attitude, not genre. There’s no self-satisfaction on display here, no cultural in-jokes. Hail Social set out simply to make a fun, danceable pop record, and for a while, they succeed.
Modern Love‘s first six tracks are all uniformly strong. Opener “Anna Belle” sets the tone, with gorgeous chorus harmonies and a hummable melody. “Heaven” and “Try Again” follow a similar template, with similarly throbbing keyboards and huge hooks, though they still manage to contain enough individuality to retain listener interest. Not all the first half follows this pattern, however—the spindly guitar riffs throughout the title track are the album’s biggest concession to the band’s NME-punk roots, and “The Fall” is a perfectly constructed slow-burning ballad.
These deviations are what lend the first half its power—they balance the potentially monotonous onslaught of dance tracks with a touch of originality. The last seven tracks, though, are all pretty monochromatic. They’re all decent songs on their own, sure, but they sound exactly the same. This lack of change ends up making the second part of the album a trying listen and derails the beginning’s sugary blast.
Modern Love and Death‘s opening line is telling: “Anna Belle you never knew the words to any songs/All you had to do was make them up and sing along.” It’s as if Hail Social wrote one (admittedly great) disco song and stretched it over an album side, changing the lyrics (just like Anna Belle) but keeping the same sound. Cut three tracks off the second half and you’d have a winner. Despite their admirable honesty and a great beginning, right now Hail Social will have to settle for runner-up.