Automatic for the People | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Automatic for the People 


Double Door, October 4

By Ben Kim

The Pulsars, Chicago's preeminent new-wave revival band, are as much about cars as stars--that is, "Cars," the hit new-wave song by Gary Numan, and the Cars, the hit new-wave band from Boston. Numan was a British synthesizer pop star playing android. The Cars were an American rock 'n' roll band playing British synthesizer pop. Like Numan, the Pulsars--singer-guitarist Dave Trumfio and his brother Harry on drums--focus on alienation in the age of the Man Machine. Like the Cars, they want to be a real rock 'n' roll band. And like both, they aim to conquer the charts with their little three-fingered keyboard hooks.

The flaw in the plan is that live, the synthesizer pop band is not lively enough for rock 'n' roll. The visible music-making gestures, like three-fingered keyboard playing, barely register, and the invisible ones engender skepticism. The Pulsars' corporeal presence till now consisted only of the brothers and their prostheses, the taped "robot parts"--shimmering, percolating synths, disembodied backing vocals. For this hometown show marking the release of the band's Submission to the Master EP (on Herb Alpert's Geffen-affiliated Almo Sounds label), the Pulsars bolstered their rock 'n' roll reality by adding rhythm guitarist Mike Hagler, who, for all he contributed to the music, might as well have been playing the triangle.

That they didn't station Hagler behind a keyboard is telling: the Pulsars are sensitive to a parochial rockism that's very American and even more Chicagoan. It's an outlook that trusts humility and guitars more than ambition and keyboards (making both pairings intuitively), and so considers the Cars--even though nerdy keyboardist Greg Hawkes, not the two guitarists, rode shotgun--more human than Human League.

It's ambition, though--in the form of a $2.5 million deal--that completes the Pulsars' new-wave revivalism. New wave always had less to do with bangs than bucks, and now that indie rock's self-denial has erupted in a paroxysm of guiltless fame-lust, the Pulsars' 1980 cynicism processed through 1996 irony is right on time. "Owed to a Devil," a tale of selling out reprised on their new EP, was the Pulsars' debut single: "A devil said to me / So you want to be a pop star / You better read my books / Go to my seminar / And kiss my pinky ring." If Dave has learned anything from his work with the Mekons--as recording engineer and live soundman--it was that the rewards of integrity cannot be exchanged for groceries, let alone an automobile.

"Submission Song," on its surface an S and M primer in the fashion of Depeche Mode's "Master and Servant," sustains the sellout allegory: you've gotta make like a flesh ashtray for the devil's cigar. We're down on all fours, they're telling their fans. Ultimately we're just bottoms, like you.

In Gary Numan's "Down in the Park," his "Mach Man" persona hints at this relationship between the musician and the music business: "We are not lovers / We are not romantics / We are here to serve you / A different face, but the words never change." The Pulsars, then, have appointed themselves the saviors of this poor robot called synth pop. The title track of their forthcoming full-length album, My Pet Robot--Dave's ode to a mechanized sidekick named Theodore (T-9000)--could be a promise to breathe life back into a music long ago left for soulless: "Things are getting slow / I think it's running low / Theodore, I'll restore you." In order to do so, the Pulsars have submitted themselves to a whale of a machine, one that has eaten Man Machines for lunch. But there's something about the Pulsars that suggests the Trumfio brothers just may have figured out a way to survive in its belly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marty Perez.

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