Review Summary: One of Detroit techno's great full-lengths, James Stinson's Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe is a simple, sweet album about the acceptance of technology.
Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe sits dead on the border between science fiction and reality. For decades, Detroit techno had fostered elaborate myths about robo-centric futures and subaquatic cultures. But in 2001, when James Stinson of the pioneering Drexciya released his solo debut Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe as The Other People Place, the Internet age was coming into sharp focus. The future became easier to predict, and Stinson responded to it with a simple, sweet record about the acceptance of technology. He died a year later.
Many albums made under such circumstances--Janis Joplin's Pearl, John Lennon's Double Fantasy--take on a portentous aura. Stinson would no doubt be pleased to know Lifestyles avoids this. This is a perpetually optimistic album, a reminder that universal human truths can still exist amid the incalculable pace of technological development: love, sex, happiness, sadness. The album cover's intriguing contrast of a laptop with a lush forest floor, as well as Stinson's invocation of the most animalistic form of relaxation on "Sunrays," even gives hope to humankind's relationship with nature.
Lifestyles has an unusually limited sound palate for an electronic album. Drums, bass, a "lead" synth, a "rhythm synth," and Stinson's vocals are the only sounds on any given track. Small sounds go a long way; the lonesome chords on "You Said You Want Me" only surface occasionally but absolutely make the song. This gives the album a striking intimacy, as if Stinson were sitting in front of a few session musicians, each with their own synth. The lethargy of Stinson's voice only adds to this effect; it's easy to imagine him leaning back in a chair, microphone in his face. Call it An Evening With James Stinson.
The album's first track, "Eye Contact," finds Stinson monologuing about spying an attractive girl in a cafe, presumably the Laptop Cafe. With the arc of the ensuing song titles and corresponding hooks ("It's Your Love," "You Said You Want Me," "Let Me Be Me," finally "Running From Love") it'd be easy to interpret the album as a romantic saga set against the backdrop the Internet age. But the album is called Lifestyles--plural--and in this context, Stinson's intonations feel more like snippets of the physical, individual lives of the others in the cafe, all of them caught in their own turbulent lives and transferring bits of them to data.
Stinson's are reminiscent of texts, tweets, Facebook messages, anywhere the complexities of waking life bunch up into short bursts of digital information. They're a reminder to the Luddites among us that technology is often more of a help to humanity than a competitor. The warmth and sweetness of this album, conjured with only a few synths and a laconic voice, only proves this point.