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Review: Colorful 'Fun City' Features a Who's Who of Guest Artists

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Sep 18, 2020
Review: Colorful 'Fun City' Features a Who's Who of Guest Artists

For "Fun City," the new album by Bright Light Bright Light— the moniker for Welsh-born, New York City-based artist Rod Thomas — the vocal tracks were recorded on the empty dance floor of New York City gay club Bedlam. Apparently, it was Thomas' attempt to tap into the energy of the queer trailblazers he holds in esteem: Disco icon Sylvester, '80s synth-pop pioneers Erasure, turn-of-the-century pop/rock band Scissor Sisters, and EDM group Hercules & Love Affair. The end result is a generally up-tempo collection of nu-disco, house, and synth-pop tunes — every song sounds distinct from one another, which gives the album a lot of color.

The list of collaborators reads like a Who's Who of LGBTQ and allied artists. Some are more contemporary — Montreal indie-pop band Caveboy (on "It's Alright, It's OK"), producer/remixer Initial Talk (on "This Was My House"), and the Illustrious Blacks (on "These Dreams"... an all-new Thomas original, and not the 1985 #1 hit by Seattle rock band Heart).

And some of Thomas' collaborators are pop vets: Australian singer/songwriter Brendan Mclean (album opener "Touchy"), Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears (on "Sensation"), and Sam Sparro (on "You Make it So Easy, Don't You"). In place of Elton John's star appearance on previous Bright Light Bright Light albums, this time around Thomas duets with Erasure's own siren, Andy Bell, on "Good at Goodbyes," and Justin Vivian Bond on "Saying Goodbye is Exhausting." And slotted in as legends in their own right: Niki Harris and Donna DeLory — who toured with Madonna as backing vocalists and dancers on the pop superstar's "Blond Ambition" (1990) and "The Girlie Show" (1993) tours, among others — also appear on "This Was My House."

Highlights include the opening one-two punch of "Touchy" and "I Used to Be Cool," which features synths that recall peak-era Prince; and, later on, the album, the atmospheric, after-dusk mid-tempo tracks "Never Be Lonely" (with Kaye), "These Dreams," and "Next to You." Some of the more striking moments appear in the form of "Good at Goodbyes," a nu-disco track with a slow, ballad opening sung by Bell, that kicks into an infectious disco à la Donna Summer. The chorus melody is one of the album's most immediately memorable, matched with a poignant lyric — "I've been telling everybody about you, saying life is better without you, but it's clear it's a lie, I don't want to say goodbye."

"Love Song" is another after-dusk track that seems to fend off substantial emotions for a regular casual hookup. Thomas knows he's "not always on your mind, just promise me when you're here you'll bring that fire." He's "not going to write you a love song," and he's "not going to tell you to give me your heart." But, Thomas reassures, "I do like to see you, I do like to be one of your guys; but I love to leave you so all we share is good times." Fair enough. But the internal monologue "Don't think too much, my heart's not a mess; it's just a crush, though we're not over yet" suggests stronger emotions are threatening to overtake his heart.

Album closer "Saying Goodbye is Exhausting" slows the tempo and strips the instrumentation down to piano and synths. The ballad, a duet with Bond, is a poignant attempted farewell to a lover. The emotions expressed here are confused in negotiating whether we can learn from our experience, or whether we regret having met them in the first place — tied in with an inability, or even a reluctance, to finally let go: "Over the hill there's a place where none of this happened... over the sea there's a place we should've been happy; I feel the pain of your loss; saying goodbye is exhausting, trying to cry is exhausting."

Mid-album tracks "It's Alright, It's OK" and "This Was My House" are centered on gay themes. The former's title is an explicit nod to Whitney Houston's 1999 classic "It's Not Right, But It's OK." Thomas explores issues pertaining to identity and individuality, and the push toward greater LGBTQ equality both outside of and within the community. "This Was My House" features Harris and DeLory vamping behind Thomas over a glorious dance track, with chorus synth patches that recall Samantha Fox's "Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)." Lyrically, "This Was My House" is a celebration of the safe spaces of gay clubs — safe spaces whose existence has been threatened first by the prevalence of dating apps (because who needs clubs when you can geolocate?) and now by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, "Fun City" lives up to its album title, which was derived from former NYC Mayor John V. Lindsay who, on the day he took office in 1966, with the city in the middle of an impactful transit strike, said "I still think it's a fun city." The album is fun and filled with songs that would sound fantastic on dance floors like the one where Thomas recorded the album's vocal tracks. Listen on a deeper level, and these songs offer emotional substance on the ways in which we negotiate our past with our present and, where relationships are concerned, our desires with the matters of the heart.

"Fun City"
by Bright Light Bright Light
$15.55 (CD) and $25.92 (pink vinyl LP)
Bright Light Bright Light Official Store

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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