Let’s face it. Half the fans of Hercules and Love Affair’s self-titled, critically adored, unapologetically gay debut never danced to it. With the attention of hip-enough tastemakers and DFA’s stamp, Hercules and Love Affair was easy to like — cool to be loved — by all the kids crossing their arms at DEMF.

Hercules and Love Affair

Blue Songs
Moshi Moshi

But for those who danced, HALA’s debut proved to be more than just a good album. Producer and writer Andy Butler’s retro-but-not jams managed to occupy two of disco’s best qualities: a damn good groove and that dark realization that all the great times in the world would never save you from the future. In the context of gay dance music, it felt like some cosmic epitaph with Antony Hegarty as torch-bearing materfamilias, leading the march to the next party — dancing and crying at the same time.

Hercules and Love Affair’s sophomore Blue Songs decides to pick up that torch, which was apparently dropped in Chicago right around 1985-87. While the debut hinted at it, Blue Songs makes early house its modus operandi, with the sort of forward-thinking reverence and sonics that would make Frankie Knuckles blush. Disco may have “died” at the ends of hetero baseball fans, but its living, breathing ghost is forever jacking in the Windy City and Butler’s there — with a new crew and TR-909’s in hand — to etch it in stone.

And if disco had the grace of naiveté, house had the cold resignation that your days in the club were numbered. So Blue Songs carries dread with its moments of ebullience — “Blind” 2.0 this is not.

But the group feels like Hercules and Love Affair 1.5, with the towering Antony and Nomi Ruiz gone. Playing diva duty this time out are fan-turned-member Shaun Wright and Berliner Aerea Negrot, both of whom do just fine, but never transcend.

Kim Ann Foxman’s deadpannery is back and Butler croons on a few too. DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy and bassist Tyler Pope are out as well, replaced by the economical, subtle efforts of Patrick Pulsinger. Even with these chillier house drapes, Butler’s lineup change wouldn’t be a problem if Butler’s insistence on vocals wasn’t so concrete.

So Blue Songs doesn’t have the warmth or accessibility for the straight, non-house crowd that the debut did, which is fine. But it doesn’t have the range, power or ingenuity, either. To be fair, HALA face the critical bias of playing the album game as a dance artist. So while some of Songs’s tunes stand better on their own, they don’t quite keep the house together.

The best moments feel like better songs from the past, a sensation HALA’s debut bounded over. House fans will find plenty to enjoy, if not disposably. “Answers Come in Dreams” writhes with the sort of interplay that Grace Jones or Gwen Guthrie would have owned, and Larry Levan would have laid waste to. In “Falling,” Shaun Wright almost gets his Sylvester moment. First single “My House” is straight-up Chicago style, and sure, it gets the job done — clipped beats, big piano chorus and all. But its most inspired moment? A 20-second scat solo at its tail end.

Four songs fall almost totally flat, and regrettably they’re the most earnest. “Step Up,” with a guest vocal from Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, shoots for anthem and ends up as Pride Parade karaoke. “Boy Blue” and “Blue Song,” stuck right in the middle of the album, try downtempo and find mush. The album closes with “It’s Alright,” a cover of Sterling Void’s house classic that’s so sober it’s practically maudlin.

Butler’s talent is undeniable, but Blue Songs isn’t the distillation of it. But flickers of promise still pop up in these tunes. It’s proof that the torch might be dimmer this time out, but that it’s still lit, ready to be picked up again.

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