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Music's early warnings of a new cultural style Add to ...

Perhaps it's the shudder that precedes the crack of the egg, the opening of the chrysalis, a sign that something unheard-of is coming into view: The past year in music has been marked by a strong uptick in the anxiety-of-influence index.

"Anxiety of influence" was literary critic Harold Bloom's famous phrase for the artistic Oedipus complex, where fledgling artists struggle obsessively with their predecessors. The promising part is that attempts to imitate are bound to fail: No matter how hard you try, you can't become your idols, and the exact way you fail becomes your own voice -- your style.

So when listeners are latching on hard to the artists that wear their influences the most blatantly, is it because a new cultural style is in the midst of its own awkward yearning to be born? You can't help wondering, after the past year's unexpected explosion of popularity for garage-rock and blues recyclers such as Sweden's the Hives and Detroit's the White Stripes (who'll have a chance to kill their idols first-hand when they open for the Rolling Stones' sold-out show at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto next Wednesday), and the spirit-of-CBGBs postpunk revivalists the Strokes (who headlined at the ACC themselves last night).

It's a period when influences are seized on and abandoned capriciously. Already, no doubt unfairly, there is a stale feeling to the arrival of the Electroclash 2002 tour in Toronto on Tuesday ( Tequila Lounge, 794 Bathurst St., 416-968-2001). This is Brooklyn's Berliniamsburg club packed in a suitcase whose infectious label was coined a year ago by Larry Tee, the 42-year-old DJ and promoter who organized last year's Electroclash fest in New York. He brings with him a seemingly all-female cast of scenesters such as Peaches (formerly Toronto's Merrill Nisker), Berlin's art-school-gonzo act Chicks on Speed, multimedia-personality-disordered one-woman band Tracy & the Plastics, and W.I.T. (Whatever It Takes), Tee's own deviant Svengali invention, electroclash's answer to the Spice Girls.

Electroclash overall includes many intriguingly warped deployments of the sounds you can make when you have a synthesizer that doesn't work very well (or that you can't play) and a kamikaze level of nerve. But it also includes a load of stuff that sounds exactly like the floppy-haired synth tunes you'd hear on a pop radio station in 1983, only with bad reception. That the electro anthem of the summer was a cover of Corey Hart's Sunglasses at Night should tell you how low the bar is set.

W.I.T. is an example of how easy it is to make a home electroclash kit: Breathily repeat lines about fashion, pornography, cocaine and occasionally robots over the bass line from Eddy Grant's Electric Avenue, cover something by the Cars, and you're an electroclash star too (provided you also look, as W.I.T.'s Melissa Burns does, like a dishevelled Marilyn Monroe). It's Sex and the City meets The Jetsons.

Not all of these groups can be reduced to sitcom level, but we're still waiting for the moment when electroclash's brash, sleazy impulses crossbreed with some of the other current stirrings (the bluegrass resurgence, maybe) to create something viable to survive outside the scene's fashionable womb.

Liverpool's Clinic, whose recent album Walking with Thee follows 2000's stunning Internal Wrangler, harks back to some of electro's post-punk roots but adds in a sense of melody from early-sixties girl groups, a blessedly small dollop of Radioheadish Pink Floydisms, and a lot of Kraftwerk and Can's chilly 1970s polyrhythmic-automaton groove. Here, Bloom is proved right: The sum of the parts becomes something fresh. ( With Apples in Stereo Tuesday at the Phoenix, 410 Sherbourne St., $15).

Clinic's rhythms also owe a debt to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pop king whose radical politics, stoned utopianism, John Coltrane innervisions and James Brown beats galvanized his nation and attracted a continuing campaign of government harassment, arrests and assault. (Every time the military and police would burn down his compound or throw him in jail, he'd record another half-hour-long hit song satirizing the experience.) The promiscuous Kuti died of AIDS in 1997, drawing a million mourners to his funeral, and now, five years later, a tribute compilation, Red Hot & Riot is being released to help fight the scourge on the subcontinent. ( A release party is being held by Bump N' Hustle tomorrow night at Roxy Blu, 12 Brant St., with New York DJ Rich Medina, the iDrum percussion group and others.)

The disc is the culmination of a growing Afrobeat revival in North America, and includes appearances by Sade, Blackalicious, Macy Gray, MeShell Ndegeocello, Nile Rogers, D'Angelo, jazz great Archie Shepp and a dozen more, blending their own styles with Fela's beats with varying success. Given the mission statement, it gets understandably preachy at times, and nobody here manages even to suggest the level of wit and personality that permeate Kuti's own work. (It's odd that his strongest American heirs, Brooklyn's Antibalas, are absent.)

But Kuti's memory is an especially salutory one right now: In his undistinguished youth, he spent years travelling and absorbing ideas, information and sounds. Then he came home and turned the world upside down. cwilson@globeandmail.ca

 

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