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Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Strengths In Numbers

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Interesting fact about Reykjavik: Even in the biting-cold dead of winter, you won’t find snow on the Reykjavik sidewalks. Heat from the lava boiling under the surface of Iceland — despite its name a volcanic island — is harnessed via steam, and piped underneath the city streets, keeping them perennially warm. Similarly, in the glacially cool music on This is Normal, the second album from Icelandic band Gus Gus, you can feel the heat simmering beneath your feet.

While Gus Gus’ widely acclaimed debut album, Polydistortion, suffered from excessive chilly slickness, for This is Normal the nine-person collective has absorbed a range of jazz, soul and funk influences into their immaculate techno-pop sound, investing the new album with stylistic and emotional depth.

This is Normal only stumbles when it cuts loose those new influences and retreads the ambient ground covered on Polydistortion. There’s nothing wrong with songs like "Snoozer" or "Acid Milk," and "Blue Mug" is eerie, dreamy and beautiful. But compositionally flawless though they may be, these trippy tunes aren’t half as interesting or inviting as those stacked in the first half of the album.

Lead-off cut "Ladyshave" (described by Gus Gus’ publicists as "Happy Mondays humping Prince," and I can’t do better), "Teenage Sensation," a thumping, ethereal, jazzy confection worthy of Massive Attack, the disco-fied "Starlovers" and funked-up lounge-louche "Very Important People" work brilliantly both alone and alongside one another, building a musical momentum that the groovy, but drifting, second half of This is Normal can’t sustain.

Unsurprisingly for a group that includes an actor, a pop star, a DJ, a computer programmer, a politician and two film directors, Gus Gus does best when it embraces its own eclecticism.

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