Hercules and Love Affair Show It Takes a Strong Man to Cry

A couple of months ago in this space, I reviewed Moby’s latest, a paean to New York nightlife. Interestingly, a far more convincing homage to the sounds that defined this city’s clubs over the years, to the underground originators that spawned the overground hits, comes out this week: Hercules and Love Affair.

Andrew Butler never went to the Loft, or Paradise Garage, or the Sanctuary, or even Danceteria. Yet he and his group manage to not only convey the excitement and sounds of those hallowed clubs honestly, but also to create something new out of the building blocks of the past.

Butler is the wunderkind, the Hercules, and the rest of the spirited cast is the Love Affair. He has said the name refers to those who Hercules loved and lost in his travels, men and women, and a quest to find them again. The band’s name, especially when seen in such a light, conjures notions of muscularity and melodrama, and obvious gay resonance. Yet unlike much recent gay-identified music, Hercules and Love Affair avoid camp. From album art to song titles, the band name is integral to the overall aesthetic, yet even the day-glow, vase-worthy classical images on the cover art, booklet and CD have a kind of hallowed formality. Still, the Love Affair aspect imbues the music itself with humanity and passion.

What’s more, this album stands to be a true underground sensation, perhaps in part because of such frankness and pride, and the fact that such a thing can still be arresting (and doubtless, too, to some degree from being on the always credible and hip DFA label). Leadoff single “Blind” is already soundtracking clubs, roof parties, and ahead-of-the-curve boutiques all over New York and London, and threatens ubiquity for the summer season.

Butler reportedly got his start DJ-ing at a leather bar in Denver, his hometown. Yet the true origins of HaLA’s sound are likely to be found later, during Butler’s days as a student at Sarah Lawrence College, discovering the meeting points of art and clubs downtown. Over the years he collected an intriguing crew of personalities, musicians and friends, many of whom are on this album. Over four years Butler has been crafting songs, perfecting them and bringing in that crew to help, with himself and his pal Antony Hegarty at the center. Of course, Antony is better known as the Mercury Prize-winning, gender-problematizing singer and performance artist of Antony and the Johnsons. Fellow singers on the album include Nomi, a trans hip-hop vocalist and CocoRosie collaborator, and Kim Ann Foxman, a lesbian promoter and jewelry designer. Live, the band is joined by, among other dancers, Shayne Oliver, legendary in New York’s voguing scene and more recently a promoter and clothing designer. DFA co-head Tim Goldsworthy lends his label’s cred and his production chops to round out the crew (aside from a roster of serious musical ringers, as with any good DFA effort, from Automato’s Andrew Raposo to !!!’s Tyler Pope, jazz drummers like Ben Perowski, and more).

Like the proto-disco and proto-house that inspire so much on the album, Butler’s project draws from an extreme diversity of identities, sexualities and communities while never attempting to shy away from its own seriousness in an effort to make anyone more comfortable.

Yet without denying the impressive contributions of the other singers here, Antony’s vocal gift is positively transformed in the environs of throbbing dance music, his lofty croon suggesting the sweep of Sylvester or the falsetto art disco of Klaus Nomi.

Lead-off "Time Will” provides a sparkling entree both for the band and for Antony’s torchlike warble, as he sings both of hope (“I’m gonna follow/I’m following my muse”) and of lack (“I cannot be at half a wife”) on a track that builds from gloomy drum thumps to a bounding, melancholic electro-pop track, accented by delicate acoustic guitar (courtesy of freak folkster Kevin Barker) and warped synth effects.

If the opener is a heady invocation, melding classic disco with futurism, track two goes traditional. “Hercules’ Theme” opens with a spare percussion loop, strings cascading in as the hi-hat kicks things off over meowing backing vocals (Nomi this time). The song builds to a familiarly ornate mix of string and horn hooks and footloose lyrics, at once celebratory and boasting “put up a fight/showed us his might/little boy Hercules.” Impressively, the sound manages to be full without sounding crowded, so when the trumpet takes off in a freeform solo, it has room to roam.

Thus it’s less Donna Summer or KC & the Sunshine Band (though there’s nothing wrong with them!), and more forbears like Tom Moulton, the originary arranger and mixer who helped craft some of the greatest underground disco tunes of all time. It’s the culmination of early ‘70s soul, Gamble & Huff’s Sound of Philadelphia, and later boogie and funk, as well as the directions disco continued to take even as, in a slightly more whitewashed form, it was storming the charts and sparking the ire of stadiums full of meatheads. HaLA owe a large debt to Arthur Russell, whose artful experimentalism and so-called “avant disco” (though he was quite a hit in the clubs, even if he did play cello quite well) has seen much of a resurgence, and whose classical training (like Butler’s) infused his sound with a kind of challenge to take dance music seriously, since its motives, motions, and fans were serious things too..

Speaking of motion, track three yanks us straight to 1986 with the Inner City-channeling “You Belong” (again Nomi singing), and the song is as close to traditional house as the album gets with its echoing, drama-laden piano cadences, robo-cowbell, and the morose lyrical vision of a love lost to another.

With “Athene,” the Greek theme returns, and at first it seems the straight underground disco is back too, but with those rolling piano phrases are echoes from laser-ish synths that wouldn’t feel out of place on early Madonna. Kim Ann Foxman has a great lazy tone here as she sings of Athena’s strength and wisdom without affect. “not perfect but so strong/ warring with her own heart/ singing a woman’s song.”

And then it’s time for the album’s centerpiece, the stunning single “Blind.” The song’s drama builds slowly, starting with a moroder-style keyboard loop, an octave-jumping bassline and the perfect hi-hat, while Antony vamps the premise “as a child I knew that the stars/ could only get brighter” before coming to the conclusion: “To see you now / To hear you now / I can look outside myself / And I must examine my breath and look inside / Because I feel blind / Because I feel blind.” Along the way horns and wah-ing keys come in, but while the track takes off, its protagonist finds things not only dimmer, that there is no light at all.

The second half of album finds the elements found separately in much of the first half conjoined and melded, such that proto-disco, avant-disco, and golden age house elements all coexist, along with tamer synth pop. Yet “Blind” is so stirring that one feels the apex has already been reached.

“Iris” slows the rhythms for another Foxman-sung tune, this one a kind of monotone chug (Foxman has a hunt of Suzanne Vega’s breathiness) punctuated with subdued trumpets, and slowly building layers to a surprisingly compelling climax. Follow-up “Easy” is even slower, a kind of orientalist new wave doomsday tale, all stuttering rhythms with Antony’s vocals affectedly creepy and smokey warning “don’t run there is no where to get to” and “stay with your family.” That “no where” comes as two words is extra bleak. “This Is My Love” is mostly spare, with reverbed, double-tracked vocals (sung by Butler himself), whimpering synth sprinkled throughout, and a chick-chicking guitar. “Raise Me Up” is triumphal, as close to ecstatic but also
fun as Antony has ever trod, with a relatively sparse 4/4 beat, rising bass line, and rich, intimate trumpet lines. The last proper track is a bit of a lark, with Foxman intoning the repetitive title, “True/False Fake/Real” while Butler provides a scatting counterpoint, all while typewriters and xylophones snap and tinkle over a chugging groove

Finally, the US release adds to the original Decalogue (of the UK release) with “Classique #2” and “Roar,” both dancefloor-intended acid-house journeys.
Disco was and is so compelling because it was borne of every sort of American (black, white, brown, gay straight, trans, bi, male, female, and all the shades between). This is also why it was ultimately the cause of such extreme backlash. Despite being driven underground again only to spawn house, the message has always been positive, and Hercules and Love Affair continue that tradition, even in the face of the joylessly macho thump and squawk-fest that is last year’s hottest dance band: Justice.

“Iris” offers “this moment is yours and you / can give it to someone else,” an incredibly selfless sentiment, and a sense of giving, of respect, of charity that seems at the heart of this gorgeous debut, and seems to impart a feeling of permanence and value to the whole show.

Hercules and Love Affair Show It Takes a Strong Man to Cry