MIA DOI TODD
L.A. spellbinder Mia Doi Todd’s previous album, ’99’s Come Out of Your Mine, was committed to tape in a cathedral at Yale University in a single late-night session. This time, she’s 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 Todd’s 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, what’s going on underneath, in the songs themselves, is more fragmented than ever. Todd’s 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 it’s none too clear that she’s winning. “Obsession” moves from romantic vulnerability (“I wear the clown’s 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 neighbor’s 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, it’s the singer’s calculated phrasing — check the way the final “t” of “feet” becomes both an extra syllable and a rhythmic device.
The far-flung pieces don’t 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. (I’ve 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” (“There’ll 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 Air’s surprise infiltration of the mainstream (even the current TV ad campaign for ITT features music that blatantly plagiarizes Moon Safari’s “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 Air’s full-length debut.
But where Air’s 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 you’ve been somewhere else for a while; you’re 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)
A Chance To Cut Is a Chance To Cure (Matador)
Until it’s disturbed by clarinet screeches, the first track on S.F.-based Matmos’ A Chance To Cut Is a Chance To Cure is a poppy electronic tune, full of happy, burbling bits and warm, tonal melodies. But the clarinet is only distressing in its disruption of the giddily percolating sounds that make up “Lipostudio . . . And So On.” It’s those squishy noises that make the track difficult to listen to — when they’re revealed as slippery gurgles of fat being liposuctioned out of a human body.
For their fourth full-length album, the DAT-wielding duo of Martin C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel persuaded doctors to open their operating rooms so that they might remix the sounds of surgery. A Chance To Cut is a meditation on “medical technology,” though the pair confined their forays into the O.R. to plastic surgery — liposuction, rhinoplasty and laser eye surgery in particular. Schmidt and Daniel are no strangers to the world of field recordings — their past albums were composed with the sounds of whoopee cushions, blades of grass and crayfish, as well as more traditional instrumental contributions from Dave Pajo (Papa M) and Steve Goodfriend (Radar Bros.). Even when their project strays from the visceral sources listed above (e.g., a piece plucked on the bars of their deceased pet rat’s cage), Matmos make electronic music that reflects the organic world: heavy funk played on a human skull, electro fashioned from the sizzle of lasers on corneas, scattering rhythms crafted via “the galvanic response of Martin’s skin to a constant flow of electricity.”
Pretentious though it might sound, using bourgeois body modification to make edgy pop music is really just smarty-pants gross-out fun, by two forward-thinking musicians loving a medium where listeners can be persuaded to tap their toes to the sounds of breaking nose bones. (Daniel Chamberlin)
604 (Emperor Norton)
In their unichrome coveralls, the Liverpudlian youth constituting Ladytron look back to a future that’s more quaint than moderne. Hammonds, Voxes and Moogs are the band’s best friends, though 604 is hardly blippity boogaloo hopping the quirk wagon; these dreamy ’bots are blessed with a sensual purr.
Helen Marnie’s breathy voice is the lovelorn ghost in this machine’s electro-fueled ballads, conveying heartbreak and frustration in spite of stiff delivery and near-zero phrasing. The percussion is limited to the rhythm boxes of Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt, who delay and stagger the triggers to give the beats a layered effect. The synths take on a different texture for each track, while the pipe-organ gravitas of “Another Breakfast With You” or the ethereality of “Playgirl” indicates that Mira Aroyo’s Sequential Circuits Pro One is more like an old friend than a showoffy toy. The most left-field thing about the ’Tron is a Soviet apparatchik who pops up on “Discotrax” and “Commodore Rock,” chattering away like a cosmonaut in distress. Cashing in on Cold War–era space-race chic?
The obvious touchstones here are Gary Numan,
Magazine, Kraftwerk, etc., but did they have to so blatantly rip off the now-50ish Germans on “He Took Her to a Movie,” a dead ringer for “The Model” from The Man Machine, and “Laughing Cavalier”’s intro, lifted straight from Autobahn? (Nitpicking.) On the whole, these droid ditties are as sweet as Nina Persson — high as a kite — in Düsseldorf’s Kling-Klang Studio. (Andrew Lentz)
Porn Again (Rawkus)
Smut Peddlers represent the raunchy, raucous rebirth of Rawkus recording artists the High & Mighty, a.k.a. Mr. Eon and DJ Mighty Mi, with the addition of mixtape sensation Cage, a.k.a. Alex. The album is aptly titled Porn Again, as if the Peddlers are proud of their addiction to all that is lewd, and expect the listener to happily accept their debauchery. Yet no amount of irreverence on the part of MCs Mr. Eon and Cage can detract from their sheer storytelling genius. Even “Josie” — which begins with the Peddlers having heroin-induced anal and oral sex with a fly “Spanish chick” and culminates when Josie is arrested, jailed and consequently sodomized by a heavyset lesbian inmate — comes across more as a humorous anecdote than a scathing attack on women.
Porn Again borders on scurrilousness, with no insult left unspoken. This is an endearing quality of the Smut Peddlers — their merciless and innate ability to diss anyone and everyone regardless of race, nationality, gender or religious affiliation. They even take a stab at their label and its “The Starting Five” ad campaign on the track “Amazing Feats” (“Fuck your starting five/the starting three are us”). “Diseases” marks the lyrical pinnacle of the album, with Cage and Mr. Eon inventing clever names for the ailments that affect wack MCs and wannabes alike. Not to leave out DJ Mighty Mi, who serves up a steaming-hot portion of macrobiotic beats
to rival those of fellow melanin-challenged producers DJ Muggs and Alchemist.
Lascivious lyrics aside, you’ll either love Porn Again to death or you’ll hate it with every fiber of your being. And that’s what makes this set the quintessential American rap album — after all, isn’t immorality in the mind of the beholder?
Angola ’60s: 1956–1970
Angola ’70s: 1972–1973
Angola ’70s: 1974–1978
(all Buda Musique, distributed by Allegro)
Someone at the French label Buda Musique knows how to do historical surveys right. First Ethiopiques, and now this five-CD series on Angolan popular music; both deliver wide-ranging musical selections and liner notes that focus on providing a social/cultural context for the music, more than a deluge of details for ethnomusicology students. Early Angolan pop music became an affirmation of Angolan and African identity just as armed nationalist groups sprang up against the Portuguese colonizers in the late ’50s. Musicians paid the price for 20 years with everything from concentration-camp stints to multiple executions during the liberation wars, factional rivalries and infighting.
Angola ’60s showcases the roots forms — acoustic-guitar-and-percussion adaptations of folk themes, carnival drums and jaunty accordions, U.S. soul influences by decade’s end — that coalesce in a new, distinctly Angolan mix on the two ’70s volumes. Driven by feathery yet crystalline guitar melodies, semba is a sprightly antidote to Cesaria Evora’s downbeat morna style and rocks in a lighter, more Caribbean or Brazilian way than the Congolese soukous factory next door. Belita Palma’s “Manazinha,” from Angola ’70s: 1974–1978, offers ear proof that semba is only one letter removed from samba. Although both ’70s discs share the same major singers and backing bands (Jovens Do Prenda, Os Kiezos), 1972–1973 is arguably better and probably the best starting point in the series. It’s more upbeat, full of exuberance and the promise of life with independence on the horizon, with the blues-drenched saudade of Pedrito’s “Ngalenga Kubata” as counterpoint. 1974–1978 has better sound quality, but the music is more muted in tone, and cut with sadness — “Solo do Maqui” by Kisangela sounds like, of all things, an outtake from the Velvets’ third album.
Angola ’80s won’t come out till August, but Angola ‘90s is pretty much what you’d expect — resurrected veterans and next-generation roots updaters who’ve given semba an agreeably clean zouk sheen. And a handful of younger artists bred by exile, land mines and decades of civil war are adding modern forms to the mix, although AfraSoundStar’s “Soko Soke” is the only sign that reggae or rap has made a mark. (Don Snowden)