The marriage of Vince Clarke's sterile, techno synthesizers with Andy Bell's emotional, soulful vocals (a perfect replacement for Clarke's early '80s Yaz partner, Alison Moyet) is now in its 20th year.

The British duo spawned a handful of unmistakable original hits in the '80s and '90s that played on both dance floors and pop radio, from "Who Needs Love Like That," "Sometimes," "Chains of Love," "A Little Respect," "Always" and "Chorus" to remakes of Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" and, more recently, Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill."

Now the band has unleashed its 10th CD of all-original material (there 11th album if you count 2003's CD of covers), and is proving, yet again, that nobody makes synth-pop better.

Over the years, Clarke's synthesizer palettes have broadened and mellowed, moving from video-game-ish bleeps to warm washes of strings and church-ready pads. But the percolation of his rhythm beds remains ever-in-motion, and the power of Bell 's vocals, perhaps a little huskier these days than in the ‘80s, over the top of the glorious arrangements, remains strong and evocative.

Nightbird is a more bittersweet album than the band's most popular albums, though it has more upbeat moments than the band's past two discs of original material, which did not receive true U.S. releases. Some of those twinges of melancholy may stem from Bell's diagnosis as being HIV positive, or his double hip replacement surgery (he blames pneumonia drugs and 20 years of dancing in high heels). Nevertheless, it's a strong, mature effort, from one of the most influential synth-pop bands ever.

Bell sings about “all the changes we've been through” on Nightbird's opener, and then in the next track asks “how many dreams am I looking for in your eyes?” The latter song, “Here I Go Impossible Again,” is one of the CD's most beautiful offerings, as Bell sings of being hurt (“How am I supposed to know what's in your head, what's in your mind?”) and yet still yearning for love (“here I go impossible again/should I hold you close to keep the night from ending?”). The warm, building crooning of “Let's Take One More Rocket To The Moon,” seems both hopeful and sadly nostalgic at the same time. And the confessional quality of “Because Our Love Is Real” is stirring in its simplicity as Bell sings of love taking away all his hurt because “you know me better than I even know myself…you hold the key to my hand.”

Love and its healing aspect are the focus of Nightbird; on “Breathe,” the first single (though not the disc's strongest track) Bell hits his heart-aching falsettoes alongside deeper notes to pledge: “breathe and I breathe/it's bitter without you/I can't live without you/and I'm in love with you.” And “Sweet Surrender” celebrates the feeling of giving in to love and stands as one of Bell 's most evocative performances along the lines of “Chorus.”

“I'll Be There” features a strong beat and fuzzy synth line reminiscent of those early “Who Needs Love Like That” days, while “All This Time Still” pounds out a dancehall ready beat with an infectious ‘90s-sounding octave-oscillating key board hook.

There's a little bit of every aspect of Erasure's two decades tucked in the lush soundscapes of Nightbird. While none of its tracks may hit the charts with the ferocity of “Chains of Love,” this CD will warm your heart and excite your ears more than virtually any disc on the shelves right now. Put it on. And wear headphones so Bell's perfect vocals can sing directly to your soul.

Erasure will play two sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre Friday and Saturday.



If you close your eyes when you pop in Elkland's 2005 debut CD, your mind suddenly will be deluged with memories of 1985 … assuming you're old enough to have memories of 1985.

The New York quartet wears its '80s synth-pop influences on its synthesized sleeves, calling to mind bands such as Yaz, Depeche Mode and, given the Euro-soul fluidity of singer Jon Pierce's vocals, China Crisis and Ultravox.

Recorded using vintage synthesizers in L.A. by producer/mixer Dave Trumfio, of Chicago's Pulsars, the disc oozes retro feel, while at the same time updating the sound with modern recording techniques and mixing and matching influences like a game of “Mr. ‘80s Potato Head.”

The opening track, "Put Your Hand Over Mine" (the first song Pierce ever wrote), has a New Order-ish bass part and a vocal line or two that bring to mind ABC's "Poison Arrow." But the taut techno bleeps of "Apart" and the Erasure-esque galloping bass line of "It's Not Your Fault" tell from where the band's keyboard player takes his cues. The band actually subverts its Brit-pop sound a bit by seemingly channeling the Cars in the punchy, driving "I Need You Tonight," but even that song sounds like a mid-'80s radio single.

If you have a sweet tooth for '80s pop but are tired of hearing the same hits over and over, you need to buy this CD. It's brand-new nostalgia.

Elkland will open for Erasure this weekend at the Chicago Theatre.