Essential New Music: Non Plus Temps’ “Desire Choir”

If you try to drill down into the specifics of that frequently voiced complaint that music doesn’t sound like it used to, you’re likely to hit upon production essentials. And when people observe that music that attempts to reanimate the spirit of the past rarely gets it right, they’re likely picking up on the difference between working hard at creation and putting your effort into re-creation; neither the spirit nor the process are the same. Non Plus Temps, a Bay Area collective whose name translates from French as “Not Enough Time,” avoids all the pitfalls on Desire Choir. It was made with the right vintage gear and with the right examples in mind, but it doesn’t sound like a period piece.

Core members Sam Lefebvre and Andy Jordan commenced Desire Choir by recording bass-and-drums grooves that combine a reggae sway with tersely expressed tension to quarter-inch tape using a Tascam cassette deck. As the duo and their friends added parts, they steered clear of contemporary technology. The keyboards sound monophonic, the saxophone bleats according to Lora Logic rules, and the melodica wheezes like Augustus Pablo suppressing a coughing fit. When the duo circled back around to mix, they went for a stripped-yet-saturated dub sound deeply indebted to On-U Sound architect Adrian Sherwood’s work. The voices, bass and drums loom large, much like a vintage Pylon or Au Pairs jam, but they wade through a swirl of other instruments and indistinct sounds that’s more akin to the New Age Steppers.

Sonically, it all sounds very 1981, but it’s not stuck there. The words, which are voiced by Jordan and Naked Roommate’s Amber Sermeńo, either express universal, discomforting truths or are sufficiently cryptic to keep the listener wondering and interpreting. And the tunes aren’t retreads; whether it’s the shuddering guitars of “Reversible Mesh” or the ragged chant on “Warm Launderette,” they grow hooks in the right places. It’s the strong original ideas, as much as the analog-era sounds, that keep you coming back to Desire Choir.

—Bill Meyer