Monster Movie / Soundtracks / Tago Mago / Ege Bamyasi

(United Artists/Mute; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 8 December 2004

Well, with this being our last weekly update for what will certainly be remembered as “A Year in Music," I gotta say: “Wow.” You know?

I mean, okay, we’ve had a lot of great new releases from people from/in my country (Frog Eyes, Arcade Fire, AC Newman, John Smith, Chad VanGaalen, Junior Boys) and from the Dirty South (Elliott Smith, Brian Wilson, Devendra Banhart, Iron & Wine, Fiery Furnaces, Interpol) and from Prisoners of the Motherland as well (The Streets, The Go! Team, Morrissey, Li’l Dizzee Bastard). But the biggest “Wow” goes to that OTHER country called The Coalition of the Willing plus Enemies and/or “Overseas.” Australia represented with newcomers Architecture in Helsinki, New Buffalo, and more-or-less newbie Darren Hanlon. Sweden smacked it up with Annie and Dungen. Japan gets props over here for Shugo Tokumaru and Newfoundland’s first ever sushi restaurant. And who can forget William Hung? You’d almost think that the world was out of good music, wouldn’t you?

But NO! Right when we’re all scrambling to finish our year-ends, debating like “Interpol are technically astounding but I am skeptical of their long-term emotional resonance given the stoicism of their didactic art spaces” (direct quote from NME), newcomers “Can,” from Germany-of-all-places, drop some of the freshest break-beat jams on us since Shadow’s Endtroducing. Bam!

Give Jeanne at Mute her due propers for finding these guys. While elbow-patched hipster A&R’s purify fourth-hand smoke and drink whiskeyed-down-water waiting for the next casio-playing stool-sitting slam puppet to grace the dim-lit back corner of yesterday’s baseball card shop (yes, I am applying to Pitchfork in the new year, thanks), Mutey-J (as we like to call her) was hitting the bridge tournaments and physio clinics on a mission to reinvent pop stereotypes: take a bunch of surly old 50-something German dudes, give them instruments, a couple of months in the studio, and kitschy retro packaging and see what happens. You ask: Aaron! What happened I say: Real good music is what! And four albums of it! This is most certainly what they meant when they said, “Don’t die with the music still in you.”

Can’s lead vocalist is a Japanese ex-pat named Damo Suzuki. Sixtoo discovered Suzuki in Montreal during the Chewing On Glass sessions and took a chance, bringing the senior-rookie into his studio for a one-off session that actually ended up making the album. Suzuki showed promise in his ODB-like incoherent grumblings, and after five long hours under Sixtoo’s tutelage he moved back to Germany, into a senior’s shelter, and eventually joined a band (Can!), determined to do his family proud and reach a pinnacle of fame parallel to his older, science-made-fun brother David.

The first-born of Can’s geezer-god sessions is Monster Movie. You immediately notice the dusty semi-lo-fi-quality, made cool earlier this year by an artist from another country famous for its blue-eyed blondes: Sweden’s Gustav Ejstes of Dungen. Smidgens of Clinicesque surf-rock open “Father Cannot Yell” and are quickly followed up by Constantinian mad-hatter ravings and deep, bubbly Pixies basslines while distorted Greenwood guitars scan from the air above.

Although Can wear their influences on their tweed-jacket sleeves, their incorporation of so many of today’s popular modern musical elements would leave you thinking that they grew up on a steady diet of post-punk, indie-rock, and break-beat science instead of Rat Pack swing. Suzuki’s presence isn’t felt here because he’s not on this record (clang). Instead we hear Malcolm Mooney’s cries-against-everything (Mooney? Suzuki? Wonder who their favourite band is, huh?). Monster Movie is Mooney’s one and only album appearance with Can as he unfortunately suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after recording. This is understandable for an older gentleman suddenly hoisted from his lay-z-boy and thrust hairplugs-first into the music industry spotlight. I mean, with all her padding, if Mariah Carey can’t take it, then we can’t fault Mooney for bowing out either. His Springsteen-on-Liquid-Paper crunch will be missed.

What did he leave us with? On “Mary, Mary, So Contrary” we have compelling, emotive wailings that pressure the gorgeously-scaling tweaked guitars into a stressful fit. Chiming back-up strums and boom-bip breaks leave the track sounding like a slowed-down “High Noon” (DJ Shadow). Throughout Monster Can show an astounding ability to pleasingly channel their influences. “Outside My Door” harkens back to Clinic with its eerie harmonica and jangle-pop while blending subtle bass warblings and Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” live-show tinkerings with sometimes-“Grindin” percussion. The song ends up a mellow meditation on the conflicts of having to leave someone you love; it’s nice to see that passion doesn’t rust when its pipelines do.

Soundtracks changes gears completely, introducing a softer, less jagged sound to complement the not-so-howlin’-mad Suzuki. While often dipping into pseudo-porn schmaltz (thereby suggesting no small collective midlife crisis) it does boast some sweetly swinging numbers such as the Arabian-tinged “Tango Whiskeyman.” “Don’t Turn the Light On, Leave me Alone” bafflingly evokes some of Paul Simon’s jazzier late-70’s work (they must have had cool kids, as well) and charmingly twists Suzuki’s accented tongue in knots. I heard they tried to get Andre 3000 on “Soul Desert” by selling it as a Stones-meets-Funkadelic retro-take on Chief Xcel production. It actually turned out better than that would indicate. “Mother Sky” opens with a Futureheads breakdown but quickly spins out of orbit into a cascading hellfire (so as to avoid Futureheads comparisons, obviously) which quickly goes up in smoke, puffing into a possessed-punk Go! Team as conducted by Satan. Can have obviously studied the popular bands of today in order to bridge the hipster generation gap, and somehow they pull this trick off while never drifting too far into the realm of burglary.

Tago Mago sees the band striving for its own sound; this album was obviously birthed a few weeks after the groove-searching experimentations of their first two, likely when they’d become more comfortable with being on their feet for hours every afternoon. Mago does boast an overall gorgeous psych-funk-pop feel, but it’s just too bad they didn’t beat Dungen to the punch: having been released mere weeks too late, Tago Mago seems to rely too heavily on Ejste’s fantastic Ta Det Lugnt in its psych-throwback spirit, and thereby suffers from a perceived lack of authenticity. Furthermore, on “Mushroom” Can simply rip off a break that’s already been used numerous times by Buck 65, Cut Chemist, and DJ Shadow (to name a few). There’s really no excuse; you would expect that by an intelligent, progressive band’s third album they’d have developed a sound that could inspire their contemporaries and, if they’re lucky, future generations of musicians. Especially given the successful eclecticisms of Monster and Soundtracks.

I mean, by Mago it’s time to synthesize the previous meanderings into a career-defining mission statement. All random, spacey, scratchy sparseness aside, that’s just not going to happen if you sound like you’re recycling ideas. Take that eerie backwards tape-splice for example (“Oh Yeah”) – how many times has that been done before? And the ragga-melt funk fusion of “Halleluhwah”? Sorry, that was a mini-era in early ’90s hip hop. And the end of “Aumgn”—-if you’re going to use video game sounds, do so like Mixel Pixel, and incorporate them organically into your music. Don’t make some cheap, imitation video game sounds that come off like they were concocted before video games were even invented. That’s just not class. I don’t care how mind-blowing your percussion section is.

Things do improve significantly on Ege Bamyasi—-although, again, we have one of those fresh-but-terribly overused breaks on “Vitamin C.” You’d think the boys wrote it themselves the way they unabashedly flaunt the well-established hip hop producer’s staple. Lucky for us all, then, that the layered strings and vibes at the track’s climax are amongst the most pleasant sonic experiences to be had this year. “Soup” boasts the early angularity and spastic bliss of the Dismemberment Plan (God have mercy on your souls) and warps into something like how The Arcade Fire would sound if they replaced sad with mad, were sleep-deprived, and didn’t shower for two weeks, during which time they only consumed Jagrmeister and cokes (see Suzuki’s incoherent—-even for him—-non-form call to arms against articulation at the end). This brief Torrett’s interlude is only a minor poke in the eye when bounced off of the glorious thick-funk-milkshake of “I’m So Green,” which subtly reinvents its own groove every 16 bars, maturing and expanding each time. Can do the unthinkable on the otherwise otherwordly closer “Spoon,” however, as they shamelessly lift the drums from “Funky Cold Medina.” I mean, sure, go ahead and bite Sixtoo’s and Signify’s heroin beats in a live context, okay, and grab some drum hits from Shadow, Buck, Dibbs, and Chemist while you’re at it, sure, but this? Jeanne! C’mon!

Nevertheless, the totality of Ege does deliver on the culminated promise of their previous three works, and it’s a testament to the raw, long-gestating talent these guys have cultured over the years. They’ve come such a long way in such a short time, and Ege, while rough around its edges, is a superb, intensely mellow affair that, aside from the overused drum samples, casts off from the safe shores of the influence of today’s indie darlings while always maintaining a joyous, captivating accessibility. This shows promise for the next four Can releases, which I understand are being recorded as I type.

Now, with all that said, I am hesitant to put too much “Best New Band” weight on Can’s slouching shoulders. The caveat emptor here is that their sound, while intimidatingly diverse in its own right, can readily be found throughout today’s indie rock/pop and “experimental” music and really shows little deviation from the standard “we’re new but not too new” guise of today’s heavy-rotators. While Can certainly fit in perfectly alongside the best of their contemporaries (name-dropped throughout this review) as purveyors of fine, progressive modern pop music, if they don’t turn their covert copy-catting around soon, they’re never going to inspire or be memorable or recalled by fourth and fifth-generation cokemachineglow writers as a band that shaped an era—despite their obvious potential for history-making.

Worst of all: time is, obviously, running out for these guys. While the band is just a baby, it is four albums old, and its collective members’ dog years might run up into quadruple digits when totaled. Let’s face it: you can’t innovate by simply emulating your influences, no matter how fantastic those influences are. To inspire, to really revolutionize popular music, Can is going to have to build upon what they’ve been given. And that’s obviously a tougher task than we’d all like to think.