Sequence Report, the new electro project from Chicago's Tevo Howard, is a strange kind of nostalgia project. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that I am the exact market for this record, an easy target for the brand of sentiment that it tries to create. Howard and I are the same age, more or less, and we both grew up hanging around Chicago's North Side and digging through the crates at Wax Trax. 'Secromance', for all of its flaws—and it has some big'uns—impossibly captures the feeling of tramping home through the Chi-town winter with a strange and beautiful record in your bag, that bright and secret thing, a telegram from some like-minded soul.
Howard's approach is a kind of eccentric traditionalism; his best work, to date, have been a series of house records. "Without Me" is probably the one that is best known, and for good reason. It's a technical yet soulful little track that builds around the vocals of Tracey Thorn, using clipped drum samples and organ tones. It's a tiny masterpiece, showing exactly how much affect a talented musician can wring from a mostly bankrupt formula.
Sequence Report is another of today's genre projects, which Howard concocted from a global map of early electro influences, from Manchester to Kraftwerk's Düsseldorf. All the familiar sounds are there—in particular, the venerable Emulator III patches, sounding as grand and meaningful as they did for Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, and Depeche Mode. Due to Howard's iconoclasm, though, the end result winds up warmer and more affecting than it has any right to be. It is also far more original. Sequence Report is another example of that odd oughties animal: the record studied up from obvious antecedents that nonetheless finds its own creative territory.
The issue with 'Secromance' is the vocals, which, like the rest of the album, seem to be a high-concept lark. It's a dialogue between two synthetic voices, female and male, reciting the sort of sci-fi future-babble that we know from Detroit techno cuts. It's a duet for a broken, posthuman age. The female has British authority, a school-marm aspect. She is a clear nod to the Art of Noise, and (in case we didn't get it) Howard even processes her, on "Tragedy," with a Max Headroom stutter. The woman asks officious questions and makes assertions. The male is mostly comic pathos—not the depressive social machine of "Fitter, Happier," but the drone that Beck played for laughs on "Hell Yes."
Their dialogue is a one-liner, or maybe two. It would be great for a four-tracker. As it is, it's not compelling enough to carry an album. But like everything on 'Secromance', there's an undeniable attraction to it, a warm and mysterious vibe that is too smart to be just a goof. There is a strange intimacy, a funny/sad near miss of meaning, the pillow talk of artificial intelligences. The whole album channels this sensibility: a mix of nonsense, miscommunication, and longing for meaningful contact. The joke is a little close to the bone, and this elevates it. The device made me feel a genuine longing for all that gorgeous postmodern bullshit that the Art of Noise, among others, blessed us with 30 years ago.
Howard is too sly to see his main character—the machine searching for contact—as anything but a pop cliché. This might be why he often pulls back to deal with it from an ironic distance, before sneaking the genuinely emotive back in. His ambivalence is ours, and it means that we also can not fully immerse ourselves in the world of the record.
For this reason, 'Secromance' is strongest in its first three or four tracks, in the moment before the devices get tired. By the time I hit "Beauty To Body Count," an irritating track built on the bad kind of repetition, I was half done. Howard certainly manages to pull us back in several times before the end, though—mainly when his interlocking melodies build toward something really great.
This happens, in particular, on "Been Steppin To Your Love," which is so good that the formula suddenly sounds momentarily fresh, again. But by the time "See Quincy Report" ends the album in an abrupt fade, the fatal flaw of the project becomes clear. It's all been about inconclusiveness. And like Howard's spectral machines, we have been waiting for a moment of connection that never came.
01. Emotion Number Eight
04. Beauty To Body Count
05. Even With All Odds—Catch 22 Mix
06. Exotic Object
07. Been Steppin’ To Your Love
08. See Quincy Report