The stature of Lifestyles of the Laptop Café has grown to the point that a petition to have it reissued earned over 1000 signatures.
Originally released in 2001, The Other People Place’s Lifestyles of the Laptop Café is one of the most intimate of all techno records. It’s organic in feel, mechanical in texture, austere yet coursing with warm blood. Five presets scarcely change from track to track, with lead synth, pad, drum machine, bass and short mantras repeated in a calm, solemn voice. It almost feels like a live band; the sounds are clear and unprocessed. There’s no noise, no distortion, no static, no traditionally “negative” sounds. It’s simple enough you’ll probably hear everything there is to hear after one or two listens. You go back, again and again, for the feeling.
The album was the final testament of James Stinson, who comprised the great Detroit techno duo Drexciya with Gerald Donald. Stinson died in 2002, between this record’s release and that of the final Drexciya album Grava 4 (slated for a reissue next month). An air of finality hangs over Lifestyles, due to Stinson’s illness and to the state of Detroit techno. In 2001, the genre had been grappling with the uncertain future of technology for two decades. The present was beginning to seem like the future, the fast-growing Web seeming to hold the answer to what would be in store for the next few eons.
If that’s the way the future would be, Stinson seemed to conclude, maybe it won’t be so bad. He seemed hopeful about humanity’s relationship with technology. To the mechanized march of the TR-808, Stinson mumbles universal, human sentiments. It’s your love that’s keeping me soaring.” “You said you want me.” “Let me be who I want to be.”
The first sound we hear on the album after the drums is a sexual grunt. Then Stinson describes an encounter with a lady in an Internet cafe: “Wow/ Something’s happening to my transmitters.” He slides on over, and a romance begins, which we can follow through song titles from that first “Eye Contact” to a “Moonlight Rendezvous” to “Running From Love.”
But the story’s not what matters here. Ultimately, what makes Lifestyles such a wonderful listen is the deep sense of comfort it imparts despite its robotic composition. With an ambient, almost New Age tone, these eight tracks unwind slowly at leisurely tempos, stretching just long enough so the listener can sink into them without finding themselves completely lost. They fade in and out without changing much. Elements come and go seemingly at random, and the most beautiful sounds here have a way of sneaking up on you, like the stunning chords that periodically bloom out of the depths of “You Said You Want Me” or the synthesized stardust that descends during the quiet moments of “Moonlight Rendezvous.”
Lifestyles was not beloved upon release, perhaps because of its relative daintiness; it’s easy to compare it to any of Drexciya’s formidable releases, not to mention the genre-pushing IDM prevalent on the Warp label at the time, and see it as a bit slight. Fans who like more of a challenge from electronic music might not be as jazzed about Lifestyles as any given Drexciya record. Yet those who find Drexciya’s music too harsh and dystopian might be enthralled by the wide-open vistas Lifestyles provides for its listeners. This is pure ear candy.
In the last 15 years, Warp complied, and the timing couldn’t be better. Millennials are old enough to be nostalgic for the early Internet Age and its aesthetics: the sound of dial-up, the glint of screensavers, the bulging eyes of Pixar characters. This cultural memory manifests itself today through seapunk and vaporwave. It’s fascinating to hear an old-timer confronting a new and scary age of technology and, perhaps, falling in love with it.