Sharps & Flats

Beck's Kraftwerk-meets-Kraft-cheese funk -- and more audio fromage from Sonic Youth, Pavement, Cibo Matto and Air -- on "At Home With the Groovebox."

Published March 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Everything you need to know about Grand Royal's "At Home With the Groovebox" compilation is right there in the album title. The "Groovebox" is the programmable synthesizer on which the album's 14 tracks were composed. It reproduces the sounds of various '80s rhythm machines -- 808 thumps, 303 bleeps and assorted boom-baps -- along with a veritable cheese platter of similarly retro keyboard sounds. The "At Home With" speaks to the spirit of the project: This is a collection of larks and throwaways, artists amusing themselves with a cool pro-audio toy. (The cover illustration even shows a quartet of lovable preteens gathered 'round the Groovebox, as if it were a Simon or a Chutes & Ladders board.)

The record's defining moment is probably Beck's contribution, the "amateur night at the Miami bass bar" workout "Boyz," a limp sequel to the "Kraftwerk-meets-Kraft-cheese" funk of Midnite Vultures' "Get Real Paid." Over a skeletal rhythm track, Beck taps out prefab drum fills, Furious Five keyboard arpeggios and canned klaxon sound effects, whispering about "Boyz ... pushing million-dollar buttons ... turning jams up to 11." He sounds as if he's turned on by his own detachment from the process, by the idea of phoning it in, and treats the Groovebox like a labor-saving device; it funks so we don't have to.

This is one of the better songs. Much of the rest is interesting only as a study in personality projection. On the swooshy, beatless "Campfire," for example, Sonic Youth make their Groovebox sound like Sonic Youth, but there's no trace of the somewhat less dynamic Sean Lennon in "Winged Elephants," an unremarkable drum 'n' bass songlet. Bis and Buffalo Daughter (whose "303+606=Acid" is appropriately formulaic) can't suppress their snicker reflex. Cibo Matto do a blithe, quasi-Brazilian, croon-over-beats routine even they're probably sick of by now. Jean-Jacques Perrey gets far, far too busy with the slappy "Seinfeld bass" button on "Groovy Leprechauns." And Money Mark reworks "Insects Are All Around Us" for no reason at all.

There's a reason why Kraftwerk's ode to push-button melodies, "Pocket Calculator," stressed a human voice asserting, "I am the operator of my pocket calculator." Like all instruments, electronic or otherwise, the Groovebox is only as funny, cool or interesting as the people who program it, and most of these artists haven't exactly been bursting with exciting new ideas of late. (A more inspired lineup could have saved this record -- were Les Rhythmes Digitales, IF, the Beta Band and Fatboy Slim all otherwise occupied? And where were the hip-hop producers?)

Only three tracks manage to go beyond the project's built-in kitsch factor. Pavement's "Robyn Turns 26" introduces Matador '94 to Tommy Boy '83, as a rhymin' Steve Malkmus chews his pop-culture references ("Sister Christian" karaoke, Trustafarians, Mr. Clean) like Rocky Mountain granola, then drops the math-rock science: "20 Camel Lights, a six-pack of brew -- that's 26 friends, the same as your age." Pretty fly for indie rock's archetypal white guy.

Air's "Planet Vega" punches up pathos, drama and old-school Madonna on a track that's either a homage to the really sad parts of the "Devil in Miss Jones" soundtrack or a tender rip-off of Mono's "Life in Mono," je ne sais pas. And "Today I Started Celebrating Again," by Bonnie Prince Billie (aka Palace Brothers/Songs/Music's Will Oldham), is the collection's jewel: a tune about slowly drinking and brawling yourself to death, rendered even more bizarre by an instrumental bridge that sounds like a MIDI file of Eddie Money's "Walk on Water." Oldham sings it like a despondent day trader slumped over the can in a TGI Friday's men's room, like the Young Marble Giants with a mouthful of broken teeth, like the strangely peppy high-hat is a pacemaker he'd just as soon unplug.

By Alex Pappademas

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