I’ve spent the past hour playing Almost Alone’s “Blue City” on a loop. My first reflexive thought was that it was odd for a synth pop band to rip off Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” for a song intro, but this thought does not make sense. Almost Alone recorded the song in 1984 and it swiftly faded into obscurity. That makes it unlikely that even the reverse of my reflexive thought is accurate– Yo La Tengo are music obsessives, but even their crate digging skills likely didn’t go that deep when “Autumn Sweater” was cut to tape. Such is the danger of the modern reissue, released into a world where everything is discoverable and no one is safe from a retroactive, accidental rip off or two.
That isn’t the only confusingly modern element to Electroconvulsive Therapy Vol. 3, an upcoming Record Store Day compilation from Seattle’s synth archaeologists Medical Records. Chiefly centered on European synthpop acts, Electroconvulsive Therapy is stuffed full of extremely rare finds co-curated by Crispy Nuggets that would sound contemporary if they featured better production values. The aforementioned “Blue City” even manages to close the mix out with a Romantic synth climax La Roux would happily crib in a heartbeat, while Tipical Me’s “Claustrofobian” would be a perfect fit for The Guest in both sound and theme.
What makes Electroconvulsive Therapy most notable, however, are the sections that highlight alternate routes synth pop history could have traveled and has yet to travel again. On “Evil Places,” Black Fantasy combine the dreamy organ lines of Procol Harum with New Romantic vocals and Suicide rhythmic minimalism. V.U.D.’s “Look!” is probably the weirdest moment on the collection, though. Starting with an inexplicable blast of electro-funk slapbass, “Look!” only grows weirder with every second, the vocals unexpectedly hooky and melodic, fittingly paired with a melancholy piano line that leaves you entirely unprepared for the chorus’s sudden shift into mutant synth funk. The melodic vocals disappear and are replaced with gimmicky demands to “Look!” and an eerie explanation that “I need your eyes!” which is itself interrupted by laser effects and goofy reverb. I’ve listened to the song several dozen times and I’m still not sure whether I actually like it or am just hooked on the oddness.
My mind is a little clearer on Secession’s “Betrayal,” a proto-dark wave track that prominently features a propulsive, unrelenting drum machine and swirly guitars soaked in indiscernible effects. The liner notes indicate that this selection isn’t totally indicative of Secession’s sound, as the UK act moved on from this 1983 single to pursue more lucrative dance floor numbers, but honestly that’s pretty disappointing. With its monotone vocal and shadowy production, “Betrayal” has elements of early Cure and Joy Division while also hinting at the current sound explored by artists like the Soft Moon, particularly when a sinister klaxon synth breaks through the sludge towards the end. This Secession offering is one of the only tracks on Electroconvulsive Therapy that makes clear the ancestral DNA synth pop shared with punk, showcasing the darkness associated with early pioneers of the scene as well as the adventurous songwriting that enabled it to swiftly take over.
“Pope No Hope,” Tipical Me’s second cut on the compilation, leans in the opposite direction, marrying dance club drums and a catchy bassline with some exotic tinges, like a ghostly melodica playing what I swear is the “Mad World” melody and a synth pop twist on that “Louie, Louie” mush mouthed fake patois. Not long after, Leidenschaft’s “The Cities of the Red Night” answers the eternal question “What if U2 got rid of The Edge and hired a synth player instead?” The result is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a straight-to-video sequel to Days of Thunder and I don’t meant that as an insult, not in the slightest.
Electroconvulsive Therapy Vol. 3 hypes itself via the rarity of the assembled tracks, and granted, not everything here is a beautifully preserved gem, but the “what if” and “what could have been” elevate the weaker moments while the stronger material needs no such excuse. Synth pop has a major resurgence going on and it’s bound to hit oversaturation soon, yet compilations like this help explain why electronic music continues to be so interesting to musicians and fans alike. Now excuse me as I get back to trying to definitively prove that Yo La Tengo are time travelers who owe Almost Alone a royalty check.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover