New album, different story 

Athens electro-pop duo I Am the World Trade Center offer another disc amid drama

Circumstance is a hobgoblin that haunts the music career of Amy Dykes and Dan Geller, the duo that makes up Athens-based I Am the World Trade Center. In 2002, as it prepared to release its second album, The Tight Connection, the band found itself at the center of a media storm brought on by post-9/11 sensitivity. The band's name -- a random sentence uttered by Geller to symbolize the unit he formed with girlfriend/collaborator Dykes -- suddenly seemed in bad taste.

Having shortened to "I Am the World" briefly while on tour in late 2001-early 2002, I Am The World Trade Center returned to its original moniker by the time The Tight Connection hit stores in July 2002. Two years later, Geller and Dykes have a new album ready for the masses, but once again, circumstance has dealt them a difficult blow.

On a rest day between tour dates in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. this spring, Geller rushed Dykes to a hospital in Fairfax, Va., after the she complained of difficulty breathing. For the past few weeks, Dykes had experienced some swelling and fatigue, and had to cut the group's set short the night before in Baltimore. Three days later, on April 27, 2004, Dykes was diagnosed with a Hodgkin's lymphoma that was subsequently found to be in Stage III, meaning it had yet to spread to her bone marrow. After returning to Athens, she was placed on an aggressive chemotherapy treatment plan.

Nearly two months after the diagnosis, Geller makes assurances that Dykes will be fine after her chemo course ends in a couple of months. He had initially been updating Trade Center fans on Dykes' condition in day-by-day reports, but he is clearly tired of cancer talk and is eager to tell all about Trade Center's just released new disc, The Cover Up.

"Well, nothing happened with the first one [2001's Out of the Loop], so we're two for three," says Geller. "It's weird, but it seems normal to us 'cause we've been through this already, so it's like something else to talk about besides the record when you do interviews. ... You know what? At least people won't talk about the name all the time now. This is all they'll talk about."

Oddly enough, while The Cover Up's release is being obscured by the human interest story surrounding Dykes' illness, the album itself was borne from two different dramatic situations: First, Kindercore, the band's label (co-founded in the mid-'90s by Geller) was usurped by its distributor and creditor, eventually folding and freezing its back catalog, a most touchy subject for Geller. As a result, I Am the World Trade Center had to find a new label, saddling up with old friends who run New York-based indie Gammon Records. Lyrically, the album addresses another tale of interest to, at the very least, Trade Center fans: the dissolution of the six-year romantic relationship between Dykes and Geller.

Geller had begun cooking up the house beats that would serve as the backbone to the 12 songs on Cover Up in 2002, right after work on Tight Connection had completed. Three songs -- Geller's rock "anthem" "Rock It" and glammed-up club anthems "Great Escape" and "Silent Film Stars" -- were all completed within a year of Tight Connection's release. But the bulk of the writing for the new disc was done last October during a rocky patch in Geller and Dykes' relationship -- oddly enough, while they were on tour with indie-rock lovebirds Mates of State.

"We wrote it on tour while we were broken up," says Geller, recalling the time period. "We were on tour with Mates of State, who were married and conceiving at the time. It was really weird because it never really felt like we were broken up while we were on tour together. At home it did, but on tour, whether it be out of necessity or comfort or whatever, we didn't act like we were broken up."

The Cover Up, a quintessential breakup album, finds Dykes' voice showcased and couched in body-moving grooves. She's assertive and on point with her delivery, which erases memories of the band's lazy early days. After the breakbeat minimalism of Out of the Loop and the Britpop bridgework of The Tight Connection, the goal of making a dance album was fully realized by Geller, whose flourishes are grand and bombastic.

Trade Center's sound was flushed out through its first collaboration with a proper producer. Mikael Johnston -- formerly of San Francisco-based trance collective Mephisto Odyssey -- helmed the controls, mixing The Cover Up for more than 500 hours in his Athens studio.

"[After recording] we brought [the album] into the studio here and mixed, just mixed, for two-and-a-half months, eight hours a day," says Geller, recalling how his latter part of 2003-early 2004 was spent. "It's 'cause [Johnston]'s a very meticulous guy. It may have been overkill, but the way it came out, I just let him do his thing."

While Johnston's work helps to accentuate the texture of the final product, the lyrics really have center stage here. Dykes' vocals were recorded at Red Lab Studios in Atlanta by Ed Rawls, frontman for local band Good Friday Experiment; he captures her pitch perfectly. And the electro-pop diva let her man have it, so much so, that Geller decided that he needed more of an audible presence on the record. Confining his notes to a comfortable range, the duo produced call-and-response vocal hooks that will be this album's hallmark.

On "Deny It," Dykes lets Geller know where he stands, singing, "I'm what you want and don't you deny it," while Geller retorts through a vocoder, "We both want to speak but we don't know what to say." Elsewhere, over the playful, Stone Roses-reminiscent bass-heavy groove of "Different Stories," Geller robotically discloses the truth of breakups, "Talking too much and you hear different stories/Different stories/You hear different stories."

Speaking of different stories, Geller mentioned that he and Dykes would probably be back on the road promoting The Cover Up by fall, but a chance run-in with Dykes revealed that fans probably shouldn't hold their breath just yet. Also, since the recording of their breakup album, Dykes and Geller have mended fences and are actually engaged, with a wedding scheduled for spring 2005. So there's all new drama to enshroud an album in. But this time, it's a happy circumstance.

nikhil.swaminathan@creativeloafing.com

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