[10 December 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When you add an Electric Grandmother album to your MP3 player, you’ll notice that you gain a whole new genre. It’s called sitcom-core and Pete Faust of the Electric Grandmother has been trafficking in it for years, bringing bits and pieces of pop culture past to the present so that we may experience them again as tongue-in-cheek synthpop and punk. Terrible sitcoms from the ‘80s have been a preferred target before, but Faust never stopped looking for other things in our junk culture to praise, lampoon, or simply remember. Love in an Escalator, the Electric Grandmother’s seventh (!) album, is one of mild transition. Faust recorded the album before, during and after his move to Washington, D.C. His wife Mary Alice Hamnett became more involved in the recording process, making Love in an Escalator more of a team effort than past releases. But through it all, the Electric Grandmother sounds like the Electric Grandmother; silly, brief, and equipped with melodies that operate like children’s music. After just a few cursory listens, I cannot get some of these songs dislodged from my brain.
The technical qualities of the Electric Grandmother’s recordings have gradually improved over time. What started as series of soundtracks to goofy multi-media events have become very satisfying albums in their own right. Hitching to labels like Hail and Infinite Number of Sounds has given the Electric Grandmother the boost this genre needs. Faust may be well versed in the old school rules of punk (see the smothering 32 second blast of “Reagan’s Got the Bomb”), but he and Hamnett understand that there is a time and place for indecipherable DIY. Love in an Escalator is not it. The percussive ticks and tacks are so good you may not notice just how well they do their job. By slinking pre-chorus gurgles, interludes and modified vocals into the mix, these songs can get identities from sound alone. And we haven’t even addressed the subject matter yet.
Love in an Escalator continues the Grandmother’s crusade to remind us of crappy things, like McDonald’s ... from the ‘80s. Remember that guy with the crescent moon head, playing “Mack the Knife” on piano, only he sang it as “Mac Tonight”? Yeah, I had forgotten about him too. But lo and behold, the memory is resurrected on the Electric Grandmother original “Mac Tonight” (not a “Mack the Knife” retooling, just so you know), and it’s a ditty too catchy to forget. The McDonald’s corporation would do well to look beyond the “I’m lovin’ it” campaign and hear a song like this, though they’ll have to ignore the verse coming from the person who doesn’t really want to be at the restaurant: “I don’t wanna McRib / Don’t wanna be made to wear a bib / With the barbecue sauce / Do you know how much this sweater costs?” I suppose we can go on and on about McDonald’s, but that’s only one track out of a total of 20. There’s a toe-tapping recollection of both Home Alone movies with “Peter’s Problem”, spacey whistles to a pad on “Mac and Me” (a movie I never saw), and a groovy boom-chick to “Baby Geniuses” (another movie I never saw). The obscured vocal mix doesn’t help any lack of knowledge you may have about some of the source material. For instance, I can count on one hand the number of times I watched The Cosby Show, so the whole “Mr. Clyde” thing is lost on me. I did, however, endure Mrs. Doubtfire and having the outlandish pieces of the plot become the subject of such deadpan music is something of a relief.
Love in an Escalator doesn’t have those oddly tender ballads like “Guyliner” and “Wife Girly” (I encourage anyone with a computer to try The Stenographer and Listening Party on for size), but there are some introspective moments of weirdness that gives you glimpse of the most of what two people can do with just a keyboard in their apartment. The album’s title track and opening number is like witnessing an ambient glow at the top of an escalator as you slowly ascend it. It’s bookended by “The Tired Robots Ride the Escalator”, an instrumental more affected and somehow mechanical than it is tired. “Sitcom-Core” throws preconceived verse-chorus patterns in the trash, shifting from one oddity to another, rhetorically asking “What do we know?” “60 Seconds of Double Dare” has a surprisingly calm, almost bluesy atmosphere to it, considering it was a show about games where kids slid through slime.
The paradox of oddball music created with such care is part of what drives the Electric Grandmother (the other part being their live shows). “Two dillweeds in love” is a quite the display of affection coming from an album that has songs titles like “Mom, What Are Girls Like?” and “Here’s Your Fuck Stuff”.