“9/10 – Perfect anti-Luddite synth-pop for the supersonic jetset”: that’s how PopMatters described the sounds of Le Concorde, the nom de musique of Stephen Becker – providing an ideal summation of the acclaimed, hard-to-pigeonhole singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. Becker is a truly pop auteur – at once classicist but also futurist, retro-influenced yet decidedly of the current moment.
Over the course of four releases – Le Concorde’s eponymous 2004 debut EP, 2005 album Universe and Villa, 2007’s Suite EP, and 2010’s sophomore LP House (the last two put out by revered indie label Le Grand Magistery) – Becker has displayed his skill at combining artful power-pop songcraft with modernist production: in the process, he creates an alternate dimension where exquisite hi-fi production flourishes and lush vintage synthesizers evocatively rub against scraping acoustic guitars, drum-machined club grooves, and psychedelic sunset soundscapes – all topped by Becker’s eternal-boyhood vocals. It makes for a beguiling, singular hybrid: All Music Guide placed House in its Top 40 October releases of 2010, its four-star review praising Becker’s “really great, slick and breezy pop… The album is full of high-concept production, imagination, and hooks both melodic and sonic… Some of [the songs] you can even imagine sneaking onto a (very) adventurous pop radio station’s playlist.”
Becker advances that aesthetic even further with Le Concorde’s latest efforts: in early 2012, Le Concorde released for free via the Internet two versions of a new song, the soaring, hooky anthem “Way To Another World.” The original features lush electronic sonics, complete with stuttering electro beats, glitchy atmospheres, and undulating keyboard lines accentuating an infectious, exuberant chorus, while the “guitar version” strips everything away to leave Becker’s vocal in high relief against an insistent six-string chime and jangle-pop Rickenbacker arpeggios. “I wanted people to hear both versions of ‘Way To Another World’ because I realized that, together, they encompass everything I’m trying to express with Le Concorde,” Becker explains. “The full-studio version demonstrates my fascination in exploring contemporary production techniques to their fullest extent in a state-of-the-art recording studio; the guitar-based one, meanwhile, reveals the architecture and craft of the song, giving it an immediacy and dynamism that surprised me. Together, they provide a pretty accurate litmus test of where I’m at, and where I’ve been.”
Indeed, “Way To Another World” continues Becker’s penchant for retrofitting nostalgic sounds – New Wave, ‘80s jangle pop, early dance music – into the sleek, manipulated poptones of now. “When I got the idea to form Le Concorde, I wanted it to evoke all those early years I spent in my bedroom marveling over the lusters, sheens, and exquisite details of records by Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, Stephen Duffy, and OMD,” Becker notes. “I was totally seduced by the lovesick-sounding, lyrically-intelligent pop gems of these bands.” Part of Becker’s approach to achieve that sensibility was by actually reaching out to work with his musical heroes. “Often I return to the programming and production of Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 and am consistently awestruck by the detail,” Becker noted in a 2010 PopMatters interview; it’s no surprise, then, that he sought out David Gamson, whose keyboard lines, immaculate approach to synthesis and innovative arrangements transformed the postmodern soul-pop of Cupid & Psyche 85 into Scritti Politti’s breakthrough smash. Gamson – who has since gone on to work with everyone from Miles Davis to Ke$ha, Chaka Khan, Roger Troutman, Luther Vandross, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Kelly Clarkson – contributed significantly to Suite and House, bringing a soulful authenticity to Becker’s use of ‘80s-era keyboards and Simmons drum pads. “No one can create the same excitement and rush as David with synthesizers,” says Becker of his and Gamson’s ongoing alliance. “And we share a love, approaching obsession, with the finest details of the sonic sculpture. We wanted to have my voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica at the forefront, to create a sense of intimacy, and merge these elements with an explosion of color from an amazing palette of vintage synthesizers.”
Gamson isn’t Becker’s only notable collaborator – in fact, as the driving force of Le Concorde, Becker demonstrates his bandleader/arrangement skills, as well as his ability to bring together brilliant musicians from a variety of scenes and eras. Ken Stringfellow – beloved for his work with The Posies, Big Star, and R.E.M. – duetted with Becker on “All These Fragile Unions” from Suite. As well, members of Psychedelic Furs, Poi Dog Pondering, The Webb Brothers, and Ike Reilly Assassination have all contributed across Le Concorde’s discography, along with renowned producer/engineer Ed Tinley (Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Ike Reilly) and house-music legend/Trax Records co-founder Vince Lawrence – all coming together to transform Becker’s recordings into a tapestry of different talents. “On the one hand, Le Concorde is very much about myself, and represents the product of my obsessions,” Becker says. “On the other, it’s also a collective where I’m the pivot, corralling all these genius players and producers to get the best out of them. The balance that results brings out the best from both worlds.”
Becker followed an unexpectedly circuitous route to get to the place he inhabits today with Le Concorde. Currently based in Los Angeles, Becker initially threw himself into the musician’s life with his first significant band, the Chicago-based jangle-twee outfit Post Office, whose second album, 2001’s Fables In Slang, was produced by indie-pop legend Chris Stamey of The DBs. Not long before that, Becker had moved to the Chicago area to complete an M.A. and Ph.D in Communication Studies at Northwestern University, absorbing himself in the postmodernist theorizing of Derrida and Baudrillard. At the same time, he became immersed in the local music scene, as well as working in various positions with startups during the 2000s Internet/digital-media explosion.
Becker’s journey isn’t the expected pop/indie trajectory, but it elucidates Le Concorde’s surprising, kaleidoscopic blend of seemingly disparate elements – a sonic dimension where the academic and untutored blurs with the instinctive and deliberate: balancing the simple and intricate, it’s a sound that’s simultaneously technology-forward yet self-consciously homemade. Becker hopes to take this approach to new heights on Le Concorde’s next, as-yet-untitled full-length effort, to be released later in 2012. “I’ve always worked both outside and within the pop-music tradition – and now I realize that duality is where my strength lies,” Becker says. “I want what I do to be surprising, but familiar, like the music that intoxicated me to make music in the first place. To get there, I set the bar exceedingly high for myself. The records I like, and like to make, are ambitious in their sonic nuances and arrangements; to me, each song is a painstakingly handcrafted jewel. Above all, those facets have to come together to inspire that certain longing – to recall those feelings of memory and desire that shape us as individuals. I want to love the things I was born to love, and create that same sensation in others with my work.”