L.A. spellbinder Mia Doi Todds previous album, 99s Come Out of Your Mine, was committed to tape in a cathedral at Yale University in a single late-night session. This time, shes traded sacred space for cyberspace; Zeroone was recorded, according to a prominently placed liner note, on a Macintosh G4. But this is no trendy trip into the laptop chop shop. Beyond the canny use of digital reverb, and one song (Ziggurat) that features a conspicuous chorus effect and a glimmer of second guitar, the basic elements of Todds intimately scaled art remain unchanged: cautious but sturdy acoustic picking, ambiguously confessional lyrics and, most of all, her rich, impossibly mannered voice.
But if the surface of Zeroone presents smoothly unified performances, whats going on underneath, in the songs themselves, is more fragmented than ever. Todds central theme remains her own struggle for self-sufficiency which may be the real point of her new recording method and in several of these songs its none too clear that shes winning. Obsession moves from romantic vulnerability (I wear the clowns nose, but the elastic band sometimes goes . . . snap) to a seemingly unrelated meditation on the image of Princess Diana, with a few lines of French slipped in for good measure. Bound Feet & Feathered is similarly lopsided, traveling from pillow to nightclub to my neighbors wet purse, despite a portentously repeated chorus (I keep my mouth shut, so no one will mess with me). If anything holds such songs together, its the singers calculated phrasing check the way the final t of feet becomes both an extra syllable and a rhythmic device.
The far-flung pieces dont always cohere: With its little-train-that-could chorus interrupted by randomly accessed memories (Grandma, hold my hand now), the 10-minute Can I? is brave but diffuse. (Ive seen her pull it off live, though.) More successful is Digital, an only slightly shorter trip that ambitiously strings everything from agribusiness to ancestry along a single two-chord pattern. Here, and on the explicitly political Tugboat (Therell be silence in the factories, just you wait), Todd eloquently demonstrates that the outside world is at least as fractured as her own inner landscape
Another Mellow Spring (CyberOctave)
Zut alors! you exclaim, more Frenchmen toting vintage keyboards? Well, mon petit chou, in the wake of Airs surprise infiltration of the mainstream (even the current TV ad campaign for ITT features music that blatantly plagiarizes Moon Safaris All I Need), such developments were pretty much inevitable. Of course, Versailles trio Mellow come by their Air-isms honestly; after all, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Woodcock did co-write Ce Matin La, one of the trippier excursions on Airs full-length debut.
But where Airs brand of retro-futurism generally seems as sleek and slyly humorous as an Eero Saarinen airport terminal, Mellow set their controls for the heart of your aural pleasure center, joyously frosting the 11 tracks of Another Mellow Spring with a giddy array of pulsating Mellotrons, soothing electric pianos, 70s-cop-show bass lines, phased breakbeats and squelchy flanger effects. For Woodcock and collaborators Pierre Begon-Lours and Stéphane Luginbühl, subtlety is clearly not an issue; Shinda Shima, the oddly haunting track that kicks off the album, pulls out most of the aforementioned tricks within the very first minute, then trumps them with an impossibly twee Vocoder vocal. The cello-stoked Sun Dance, the plaintive Another Mellow Winter and the hypnotic instrumental Mellow, Part 1 all work the same side of le boulevard, combining the vintage sounds of Strawberry Fields Beatles with the synthetic pop drama of the Electric Light Orchestra, and wielding them with the kid-in-a-candy-store irreverence of the Rutles. Other songs, like Violet (whose protagonist goes around with a whip in her hand) and Lovely Light, betray an obvious debt to solo Syd Barrett, while Paris Sous la Neige and Instant Love seem designed to parody (however tardily) the louche Britpop stylings of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp.
Unlike Moon Safari, Another Mellow Spring is probably too weird to provide the SUV set with evocative background music for their Starbucks reveries, but it still casts a heady spell. When the reprise of Paris Sous la Neige kicks in seven minutes into the closing track, it snaps you back to reality like the closing credits of a particularly intense film. All of a sudden you realize youve been somewhere else for a while; youre not sure where, exactly, but you want to return there as soon as possible. And off in the distance, you can hear three Frenchmen giggling. (Dan Epstein)