Sharps & Flats

On the scattered "Passport," Khan's musical shortcomings upstage a compelling multiple-personality crisis.

Published February 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Although "Passport" is a compilation exploring the career of one man, German expat Can Oral (his real name, the Matador bio insists), there are at least eight distinct band names listed on the record. All of them are in fact Mr. Oral, aka Khan, sometimes with a partner. Each exists to allow him to explore different facets of dance music. He's like an AOL subscriber exploiting his five screen names for entirely different ends, playing the rigid Berlin-by-way-of-Detroit purist techno producer with one personality, the retro-electro b-boy with another and the DIY punk with a third. His protean streak has given him a sonic passport to dilettantish indulgence, though his music's faults suggest he can't escape his own shortcomings.

Compiled largely from 12-inches that Khan's put out in the last seven years, "Passport" isn't as compelling as his porn-inspired "1-900-Get-Khan" (1999). DJ Howie B. may have received more attention with "Suck It and See," the imaginary triple-X soundtrack he produced, but Khan pulled the same idea off far more effectively, creating something genuinely sexy and dangerous, as opposed to "Suck It's" loungy kitsch. But "Passport" lacks "1-900's" libidinous grind, substituting sharp edges and sleek surfaces for the previous album's sweaty, fleshy textures.

"Passport" begins badly, with an irritating electro-funk number called "G.E.N.A.T.T.A.C.K. Part I," by an outfit called Global Electronic Network. Shrill, swaggering and pedestrian, it reeks of the '80s in a way that's not at all nostalgic or cute -- it could be the soundtrack to a car chase in a dated action film like "Beverly Hills Cop" or "Lethal Weapon."

After that it gets better, but it never gets great. The songs credited simply to Khan tend toward spare, angular classic techno, like the stripped-down, squelching "Middle Eastern Cooking" and the mesmerizing "Super-8.3." He even refashions one of the best tracks from "1-900" to fit this sharper, more mechanistic mode. "Body Dump," a collaboration with Julee Cruise of "Twin Peaks" theme-song fame, was creepy and insinuating on the last album, but here it's simply nightmarish. Khan has the usually gauzy-voiced chanteuse sounding surprisingly aggressive, taunting, "Carpet fibers don't lie," over an unforgiving, metronomic beat that drives home the song's murderous theme.

He's also capable of lighter moods, demonstrated in the effervescent "Empire State Observation Deck," created with someone called Walker. But "Passport" is largely a very dark, brooding record, sometimes absurdly so -- the opera singing on "EEFSS Number 4" recalls exercises in pompous techno grandiosity like Apotheosis's 1992 "O Fortuna."

It's amazing that someone self-serious enough to make "EEFSS Number 4" would be so lighthearted as to include PSI-Project's "We're Fuckt in the Head," which is why the record's final track is such a weird delight. "We're Fuckt in the Head" is pure, sneering three-chord punk, and while the label says it was recorded in 1997 it sounds more like '77. "We're Fuckt in the Head" isn't a good song, but it's hard not to admire Khan for sticking it on an album intended for electronic dance fans, among the cliquiest of connoisseurs. None of the multiple personalities on "Passport" is a brilliant artist, but at least one of them has a sense of humor.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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