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Mantler

Monody

(Tomlab; US: 13 Apr 2010; UK: 13 Apr 2010)

Mantler creeps me out. 


Maybe it has something to do with the name—that odd combination of “man” and “antler” that calls to mind both bestiality and awkward Halloween costumes.  Maybe it’s Mantler (Torono native Chris Cummings) himself; in his music videos and interviews, he comes across like Uncle Jesse from Full House if Saget had kicked him out on the street. 


Probably, though, it’s the music: a mixture of easy listening and mild electronic grooves heavy on Wurlitzer, drunken lullaby vocals, and creeping tempos.  It’s full of uncomfortable contrasts and question marks—simultaneously sexy and fumbling, enticing yet cold, classy but hard to pin down, at turns both slick and lo-fi. 


The ambiguity is everywhere.  “Fortune Smiled Again” opens with with hand drums, flutes, his beloved Wurlitzer, and a soulful double-tracked falsetto.  It all starts feeling pretty Steely Dan-ish before a jarring introduction of a too-bright clavinet and poorly recorded drums.  Then, around the 2:00-minute mark, the production perks back up—drums suddenly get clearer; some lazy horns sigh in the distance—there’s even a spot-on Weather Channel guitar solo.  What the hell is happening here? 


You’ll ask yourself that question a lot on Monody.  With his frequent shifts in style, timbre, and instrumentation, it’s hard to tell if Cummings is a musical chameleon experimenting with production styles or if he just hasn’t mastered his recording software. 


Ultimately, your willingness to accept the musical quirks is dependent on your willingness to accept Cummings’ strange, often intriguing vocals.  He has a beautiful falsetto which breathily soars to the songs’ highest peaks (and somehow manages to recall Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon), but when his voice comes back to Earth, he struggles with inconsistency, sometimes straining for notes, often missing them completely.  His timbre is a peculiar mixture of moan and croon, and the results span soulful to sleepy. 


On quiet, slow-moving tracks like “Mount Shasta” and “Crying at the Movies”, he sounds like he’s boring himself, yawning through verbose poetry that undoubtedly works better on the page.  In “Actor”, the most nap-inducing of the bunch, we hear lines like, “In dusky theaters of old / In auditoriums dark with age / The speeches actors would unfold / The poems fluttering from the stage”—not half-bad written down, but it comes across as corny and questionable when Cummings recites the lines in a mostly half-hearted moan.  It makes him sound like an actor.


Everything comes together on “Fresh and Fair”, a refreshing breath of 1980s air, where a funky electronic groove of nimble, elastic synths and programming tempers well with with ever-present Wurlizer.  Cummings’s vocals are more effective here, too.  He’s working in his lower range, but he sounds more confident with groove-based material, effectively playing with vocal rhythms and working in subtle hooks and pleasant harmonies.  “Childman” is just as effective, strutting soulfully with muted horns and chewy keys, even though it contains the awful half-lyric “Childman / That’s what you am”.  Someone get the man a thesaurus!


It’s a mixed bag, but even at its most tedious or clumsy, there is a palpable warmth and dedication to songcraft on display, even on Cummings’s weakest tracks.  When he keeps the tempo moderate and the soul thick, the results are intricate and dazzling.  Basically, this could have been a damn good EP.


It’s not going to change your life, maybe not even your month, but the finest parts of Monody, the ones that manage to filter through the awkwardness, will stick with you.

Rating:

Ryan Reed is an Adjunct English Professor, English Department Graduate Assistant, and freelance music critic/journalist with degrees in English and Journalism. In addition to serving as an Associate Music Editor/Music Writer with PopMatters, he contributes reviews, feature stories, and other work to Billboard, Paste, American Songwriter, Boston Phoenix, Relix, Blurt, Metro Pulse, Cleveland Scene, and a handful of others. If you want to contact him for any reason, send an e-mail to rreed6128[at]hotmail.com.


Tagged as: childman | mantler | monody | tomlab
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