It is late 1995 and you are making your way through the Original Soundtracks 1 album from Passengers, a thinly veiled supergroup of U2 and some of their famous friends like Brian Eno and Luciano Pavarotti. It includes hints of both their cinematic post-punk and the electronic rock in which they were then submerged, but with inscrutable lyrics and long instrumental stretches it seemed almost unrecognizable as part of U2’s oeuvre let alone their catalog. Except wait, it’s late 2006, and you are instead succumbing to the mystique of Brooklyn’s LCD Soundsystem. A few years removed from their expository singles and debut, they now rest in the afterglow of their 45:33 collaboration with Apple and Nike, still months away from their coming masterpiece Sound of Silver. You’re all about analog synths and nervy, stomping rhythms, scouring the internet for more blog house and indie-dance to scratch that itch.
Yet you’ve been pulled through time again to late 2023, and what’s playing is Los Angeles, a collaborative LP from Lol Tolhurst, Budgie, and Jacknife Lee, a trio of veteran musicians from different musical places and spaces whose work sounds like all of the above and yet none of it. The first two names in this crew are goth royalty: drummer Tolhurst was the founding drummer of The Cure, and Budgie famously drummed for Siouxsie and the Banshees as well as The Creatures. Lee, meanwhile, is a studio hand of significant 21st-century repute, mixing and producing his way across electronica, hip-hop, pop, and many shades of modern rock. The skinsmen first germinated this project in 2018, met Lee in 2019, and began assembling guest players and vocalists to make Los Angeles a medium where Los Angeles was the message—the City of Angels as the location for both the recorded sounds and their inspirations.
Our three protagonists are on record as having had fun working on this project, but Los Angeles comes across as a rather foreboding place to hang out. There’s groove and artistry to be had here, but the album feels like the latest in a slow trickle of releases that center LA once again as the dirty underbelly of America. Avant-garde soul singer Lonnie Holley and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie growl their way through scenes of tempered anger, while Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse gets uncharacteristically frenetic. In an ironic twist, prominent members of U2 and LCD Soundsystem feel like the tone-setters here. With acerbic lines like “Los Angeles, she don’t need water/Los Angeles just needs guns” in the title track, LCD frontman James Murphy goes harder on L.A. than he’s seemingly ever gone on New York City. And some of the strongest electronica here features U2 guitarist The Edge, continuing a weird techno-pop arc that began with “Numb” way back on Zooropa and might deserve a solo album at this point.
The work here is generally good and even great in spots, and we know there was no guarantee for this to sound like a Cure or Siouxsie album, but we only hear Tolhurst and Budgie’s dark-music pedigree in brief bursts of fill-heavy, tribal drumming hearkening back to “The Hanging Garden” and “Happy House,” respectively. Lee’s production tricks occasionally enhance the goth atmospheres suggested by his partners, but a lot of this album covers newer and recently discovered ground. With chamber pop inserted into indietronica or while Pan Amsterdam raps racy commentary for “Travel Channel,” Lee’s roots as a remixer feel much more pronounced here. There’s an unfortunate sense that Los Angeles follows other recent albums from acclaimed artists of a past age, where the anachronistic curiosity of resurfacing or reuniting can’t outpace songs that feel just this side of middle-of-the-road. Tolhurst and Budgie have probably forgotten more about music that most of us will ever learn, but Los Angeles almost feels like it forgets they’re there in the first place.
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.