Paper Tigers

(Huume; 2006)

By Craig Eley | 19 August 2007

This is not a dance album.

I’m borrowing here from Native American writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor, whose writing deconstructs the language and images we use to describe Native Americans. In his book Manifest Manners, he describes Native American images or references as constructed from a Euro-American tradition of imperialism and violence, then adds a simple, yet forceful line: “This is not an Indian.” I’m simplifying now, but one of his challenges to Euro-American imperialism (as well as Native American nationalism, of which he is equally critical), comes from the idea of “trickster hermeneutics,” which undermine and destroy what is “expected” from those who construct “official hermeneutics.”

Vizenor’s work is deeply personal, extremely political, and very well theorized. This is a record review. But not only are his ideas useful for understanding this record, it is this type of critical thinking that this record implicitly demands. I’ve been worrying about whether or not this is a good “house” album, or whether or not it is even a good Luomo album. But these words, obviously, are ones that we (as listeners, critics, club goers, DJs, students, record store clerks, whatever) construct, not ones that Luomo has necessarily “chosen.” In this way, we’ve defined the very small, very official vocabulary into which Luomo must fit, because if they don’t, they’ve made a bad record. But I’m absolving myself of any commitment to house or dance (both commitments were thin to begin with), or even Luomo’s back catalogue (where my commitment is quite strong), because, ultimately, Luomo have emerged as the tricksters that defy such genre classifications. They’re post-dance.

Which means that this is not a dance album.

For starters, Luomo has always relished in the role of the trickster -- CMG's Mark Abraham described their style as a “hall of mirrors approach” -- and here they play that with a perverse, carnivalesque delight. Producer/mastermind Vladislav Delay has seemingly abandoned all sense of “groove,” those constant, repetitive elements that have always kept us grounded among the hazy atmospherics, and protected us from the latent violence of his production aesthetic. It was from within this hazy, rhythmic, regular place that we could listen with awe and curiosity at the blips, bleeps, clicks, and cuts without really suffering any of their disorienting qualities. This is precisely the case with Vocalcity’s (2000) “Synkro,” which grooves so hard that the seriously nasty and amazing digital frog-like noises that eventually take over the track make complete sense. Introduced when there is still a vocal element in the mix, they eventually consume and devour the track like a slow, unrelenting cancer. But underneath it all, the groove shields us from this potentially frightening reality.

That shield has been ripped the fuck down. Paper Tigers penetrates so deeply because the finer points of Delay’s sound are thrown at you with unrelenting vigor and rapidity; they attack like objects of blunt force while retaining the form and style that can only come from master craftsmanship. Many of the album’s songs move fluidly through dynamic percussive shifts, while synthesized and sampled elements occasionally appear just to disappear as quickly. The overall experience is immediate and disarming. In a way it is showmanship taken to a musical extreme; Delay discards some incredible beats and melodies in a few bars that could lay the foundation for a truly epic dance tune.

But this is not a dance album.

And since it’s not, it creates infinitely more space for Delay to construct these soundscapes. I’m not suggesting that this album has no “rhythm,” in fact it probably showcases Delay’s percussion abilities at their strongest and most creative. And it also has bass lines, and bloopy bass farts, and rimshots galore. But every element here, seemingly every note of every beat, has been mulled over, processed, echoed, flanged decayed, flayed, sautéed, whatever. Imagine you are driving through a magical forest, and the trees have speakers that are blasting your favorite Luomo tracks. But every speaker is like a half second off the one before, and you’re driving really fast with the windows rolled down. That chopped, amazing, interesting sound you hear? That’s Paper Tigers.

Album opener “Paper Tigers” starts with a spooky ambience over AGF's unintelligible chanting. Soon the bass line kicks in, and let’s get this party started, right? Not really. The vocals, now semi-intelligible (“Maybe we are all paper tigers” is pretty clear around the 2:30 mark), continue to be chopped and manipulated beyond reason, only now they are supplemented by laser squeaks and errant science-fiction sound effects. The bass line is barely there; it’s a frame that dances with the canvas more than supports it. Then the whole thing essentially stops half-way through, and begins again.

Which is simply the lead-up to “Really Don’t Mind,” which is certainly the most listenable track along with “Good to be With.” Both songs again feature Johanna Iivanainen’s vocals, which are a sample more than a vocal performance. Sure, at some point she was standing in a studio singing, but that’s irrelevant in this context. Sometimes she sounds like a singer, sometimes like a synth texture, sometimes like the world’s most beautiful metronome. Both songs manage to kill it without ever making me want to dance.

Because this is not a dance album.

And Vladislav Delay fucking knows it. The title, Paper Tigers is most obviously a reference to how the United States was labeled by the Chinese government during the Cold War. This could be seen as an affiliation with United States culture, perhaps with vocal R&B as his continued work with female vocalists might suggest. A stronger case could be made for the track “Cowgirls,” which, at least in name, taps into myths about the American West and contemporary New York City “Bridge and Tunnel” nightlife. But sonically it also retains a strange hybrid American/European feel, as the high, affected vibrato of the melody line recalls Ennio Morricone’s work with Sergio Leone, especially the classic pan flute of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And let’s be clear, these songs, while awesome, are sometimes downright hard to listen to, especially “Wanna Tell,” whose last 2 minutes are some of the album’s most difficult, especially when you’ve already been at it for 45 minutes. Delay’s outright refusal to turn these songs into straight-up sweaty dance floor freak-outs can be infuriating.

And this, of course, is likely the album’s point. The use of the plural in the title, however, seems to refer to the tracks that make up the album; they are “paper tigers.” In this way it is a type of preemptive strike, albeit a wickedly intelligent one. Calling his own tracks “paper tigers,” as the Chinese meant the insult, diffuses (in theory) critical backlash, but it is also a direct jab at the people who have the (imperialist) power to label and criticize music. I’ve tried to do the best I can here, but I’m really only left with one thing.

This is not a dance album.