Auto : Matic
Here is the future time forgot.
Auto : Matic is one of the best albums of 1981. Liquid-smooth space-pop sound pools, dramatic keyboards and computerized instrumental bits of sprightly electronica combine to make a record that will almost certainly be the sound of the future.
What’s that you say? It’s 2003, not 1981? That’s kind of the point. This is an album made by and for someone who wants to go back in time to that all-too-brief period when it seemed that deceptively facile-sounding synth pop would rise in a euphoric crescendo and cover the whole earth.
Okay, so maybe it was only me who expected that to happen (I really liked the Thompson Twins’ Into The Gap), but I’m not alone in knowing that some of the groups of that era deserved better than to be declared utterly disposable. Venus Hum knows it. The Human League still knows it. And Rod McQuarrie, who is I Satellite, knows it as well. Songs like “Robot Parade” and “Retropolis”•which really should have been this LP’s title track•deliver that unmistakable message. The result is terrific, if you like that sort of thing (and I do). Much synth-pop is the sound of boffins in their bedrooms imagining the state of the cool world outside their windows, and that is the source of much of its charm. “Where In The World,” one of this album’s more romantic cuts, is a perfect example: The vocalist lies in bed wondering, “where in the world” an undefined “you” is “tonight.”
But the flipside is that having arrived in the wayback machine, McQuarrie doesn’t distinguish himself very well among the sounds of 1981. Oh, he tries his best at assimilation: Half of these songs (give or take) could slip imperceptibly onto any OMD/Human League/Naked Eyes/Yaz/Depeche Mode set of the era•and that’s part of the problem. OMD, Yaz and Depeche Mode don’t need him, they had Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy to contend with•but I Satellite needs them.
Another problem is that while McQuarrie has picked up many of the strengths of early synth pop, he’s taken on one or two of the weaknesses as well. I give the benefit of the doubt that his singing is heartfelt, but in places it has the weakness of much early English New Wave. Which doesn’t mean it can’t get better, of course. Think of Phil Oakey at the beginning of The Human League. Though his voice would go on to become a defining instrument of its genre, early on he was a pale shadow of his future self.
It’s too late for McQuarrie to define his genre, but one or two of his vocals (“I Want You”) do point the way to a more lush future•as the lead singer in a Heaven 17 tribute band.
Auto : Matic recaptures the essence of an era sparklingly if not quite brilliantly. But it is not enough to be a pastiche Polaroid of other songs and bands…that way lays Katrina and the Waves.
I Satellite: http://www.isatellite.info/