Monster Bobby


(Hypnote; 2007)

By Craig Eley | 30 December 2007

When I was searching the venerable iTunes Music Store some months ago in hopes of listening to samples from this record, my search term, "Monster Bobby," led me to that Halloween novelty classic "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett. And sure enough, now that I have the album encoded in my own iTunes library, the same thing happens every time I type it in. It always brings a smile to face, not only because "Monster Mash" is such an awesome song, but because it suggests the hauntedness of Monster Bobby's own music. A longstanding promoter and player in the Brighton scene (the press materials call him a "musical activist'), Bobby's most notable projects -- the Pipettes, first and foremost, and now this record -- seem fully inhabited by the (Phil) specter of music and music technologies from the past.

Whatever your stance on the music or politics of the Pipettes (my stance: the #2 record of 2006), they effectively updated classic pop sounds with contemporary wit and style. But Monster Bobby positioned their backing band into a slightly different era by calling them the Cassettes, a technology not widely adopted until the girl-group craze had died out. Furthermore, Bobby is contributing an essay on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the famous sound effects unit from the late 1950s, to a forthcoming collection called, appropriately, Hauntologies (a term coined by Jacques Derrida). My point is that over the last few years, Bobby has positioned himself as both a student and a master of the past, a sonic bricoleur who brings together technologies and genres from the past and grafts them onto the present. On his debut full-length, he finally gets the chance to explore these ideas, and the result is an extremely charming and occasionally bizarre collection of electronic bedroom pop and found sound experiments that channel everyone from Les Baxter to Stephen Merritt.

In the spirit of ghosts, Gaps often feels strange yet familiar (though not strangely familiar), and its' two-minute pop songs mostly recall Merritt, Morrisey, and Billy Bragg in their dry wit and keen observation. "I Live For Your Fleeting Touches" captures those small moments that perpetuate unrequited love, and while Bobby romanticizes them, he also has fun with them ("Like when we're passing a spliff / and your fingers touch mine"). Drugs are more than a minor theme, as the appriopriately titled "The Closest Experience to That of Being with You is the Experience of Taking Drugs" would suggest. The song shows the laziness and romanticism that marks Bobby as narrator, as well as the attention to wordplay that are indicative of Bobby as songsmith ("Always adept at finding shortcuts to the shortcuts / though I've never found a shortcut to the way you make me feel").

Almost all of the songs on Gaps are backed by deliberately rudimentary programming, and Bobby's reliance on these to provide structure coupled with his insistence on word play can make some of the songs tedious at best. "Let's Check Into A Hospital Together" is certainly one of these: an endless list of phobias coupled with a simple yet grating squelch makes the song not only childish but almost unlistenable. Likewise, "Blah Blah Blah (Give Up)" has a beat that just doesn't work at times. But since most of the songs here come in between 50 and 150 seconds, such hiccups don't last long.

While few of the tracks feel incomplete, I think it is suggestive that the song that stands out as the album's best -- I'm talking head and shoulders above the rest -- is one of the album's longest. This is not based on length alone (two other tracks cross the three-minute mark), but the successful marriage of the elements Bobby is working with: electronics, found sound, and heartbreak. After so much cleverness for the thirteen songs preceding it, "Out of the Reach of Arms" feels downright heavy, a lonely, desperate song that centers around the believability of a very straightforward plea: "Stay with me tonight." He pulls it off well, mostly through a bridge filled with guitars and screaming. It's one of my favorite indie songs this year.

For all of the fun vintage sounds and memorable lines, the most interesting aspect of the album is Bobby's use of field recordings. They show up not only in the transitional moments between songs (ironically, the album has almost no "gaps"), but as compositional elements, and even as entire songs (the opening and closing tracks, for example). The effect both adds to the texture of the music and gives the songs a unique spatial relationship; they escape the generic "bedroom" and fly out the window on the notes of bird songs, visit the arcade on arpeggio 8-bit bleeps, and head to the subway on pulsing mechanical rhythms. At their worst, the sounds are literal "sound effects," like at the train operator's voice at the end of "Last Stop, All Change," a hilarious critique of public transportation etiquette. But at their best they complicate and enrich the sound, especially the way bird songs work in "Believed You at the Time" and "Leave Quietly."

Monster Bobby's use of found sound in Gaps ultimately serves to bridge the gaps inherent in his "haunted" music. By bringing the outside world into the studio, he projects his music into the physical spaces that the songs are about, and thus connects the interior of his longing and heartbreak with the exterior of the physical spaces around him. But beyond that, he is always working to connect past with present, and the sounds of nature, tape hiss, mechanical rumbles, and record grooves speak to a history that is extra-musical -- the passage of time as it happens around us, no matter what the musical score.