Diamonds in the Dust: Arcade Fire is just deconstructed disco, Tobias Jesso Jr. is a Paul McCartney imitator


Diamonds in the Dust is a weekly study of the criminally neglected; songs, albums and entire genres swept under the rug by a lack of media attention, misunderstandings or simply being too ahead of its time. 

Renee - "Change Your Style"

Disco’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall left the genre in shambles like a tragic Shakespearean figure. Vilified and despised, disco’s once chic veneer was stripped bare by an early ‘80s mentality shift and left to die amidst a sea of condemned clubs and fashion.

Against the tides of this cultural about-face, a few clinging artists managed to resuscitate the sound and muster disco’s last stand. Renee, an obscure artist with almost no online information, helped give this mini-movement fuel with her 1982 track “Change Your Style.”

Renee’s song is the precursor of disco’s modern move from jittery cocaine glitz and glamor into the dim trenches of opiated dark disco. Distancing itself from John Travolta’s thrusting in Saturday Night Fever, dark disco encourages a sort of ironic ebb and flow. You can still dance to it, just with much less fervor and sexual tension.

Dark disco’s listeners seem keen on trading classic disco’s breathless polyester suits, skin-tight hot pants and platform shoes for dark raw-denim and a Joy Division t-shirt. You know the type.

Because of this, “Change Your Style’s” name couldn’t be more on-the-nose as it’s really just a revision of what came before. Calling it a sea-change is an overstatement, but Renee’s subtle reinvention of disco is revelatory.

The song’s understated groove gives way to psychedelic guitar solos and a driving drum beat. Together it all starts to feel like a disco through the desert, illuminated only by your car’s headlights and those little reflective bumps in between the long white lines of the road. You’d listen to this after leaving the club.

The entire persona of dark disco is rooted in antagonizing the overt sexuality and painted-on opulence of the late ‘70s. Take Arcade Fire’s song “Reflektor” for instance. There’s plenty of Disco tinge there, but the creeping atmosphere sounds tailor-made for those with black fingernails and nose piercings. It essentially eviscerates the royal fantasies of disco and grounds it in the real world.

Groups like Glass Candy with its song “Beatific” pushed this idea even further, lacing basic disco tropes in thick layers of synthesizers and effects. Glass Candy retains the grimy road-trip aura dark disco calls for while channeling a bit of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”

“Change Your Style” did the same thing, only 30 years ago.

Robert Wyatt - "Shipbuilding"

Tobias Jesso Jr. is the latest indie darling and pretty-boy pianist. His debut effort “Goon” was released to soaring critical acclaim — a feat well deserved considering it’s a solid record — but felt crafted for the overblown Pitchfork treatment.

His polished sound isn’t necessarily original. The entire tracklist of “Goon” is borderline carbon copied from elite rock pianists like Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and Elton John. Imitation may be the finest form of flattery, but Jesso might have gone a bit too far while paying “homage” to the greats.

Listen further into Jesso’s sound and another, lesser-known influence is revealed. Robert Wyatt, a relatively forgotten legend and “songwriters’ songwriter,” is known for his avant-garde arrangements and deconstruction of standard musical composition. His founding membership of the influential prog-band Soft Machine alone has cemented his profound legacy.

I wouldn’t call his music an easy-listen though, so tread carefully if you pursue his staggering back catalog.

An excellent place to start however, is with Wyatt’s transcendental version of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding.” The song’s history is complicated, but the melody is simply infectious and an instant pleasure to hear. Costello’s vivid lyrics describe the contradictory nature of war and its business practices, but it’s Wyatt’s ethereal voice that elevates the piece to new heights.

The haunting and melancholic singing weaves a beautiful web that’s adorned with the glistening droplets of piano keys. Each part of “Shipbuilding” is a stroke of beauty when taken alone, but together it creates a mosaic of sorrowful and gray-skied seaside ambiance.

Jesso’s straightforward “Without You” works as a callback to “Shipbuilding,” as does “Goon’s” more esoteric track “Hollywood.” 

Because it’s easier to compare Jesso to McCartney’s solo work and Wings-era, listening to “Shipbuilding” is more a recommendation than a direct comparison. If you fancied the piano-led crooning of “Goon,” I think it’s safe to say Wyatt will bowl you over.


Contact the reporter at nlatona@asu.edu or follow @Bigtonemeaty on Twitter.

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