Ah, the limitations of a gimmick.
It’s a likely story, really. Two guys discover a 1970s Mattel organ that plays back the sounds of real instruments from encoded celluloid discs. Being musicians, the guys, Rob Crow and Pea Hix, decide to record an album spotlighting this mad cousin of the sampler, the Optigan. The album is a hit with critics from Melody Maker, NME, Mojo and elsewhere, and the boys return three years later to release a second. This time featuring the similarly canned sounds of something called the Valko Orchestron and the Chilton Talentmaker.
So, how does it sound? Crow sings in an agreeable, Beatlesque tenor, and the songs are not at all without appeal, among my favorites being the evocative “Held,” and the instrumental “Guitar Song.” The songwriting here is clever, too much so for its own good in a very They Might Be Giants way by at least two-fifths. Witness the prickly “Song For America,” so called because it appears only on this American CD, the Japanese version having “Song For Japan(!)” This begins by repeating “I am not obsessed with this” over a drone, and ends by whispering: “There will be a great day of reckoning / And they will rise / And they will find you / O.K. not really / But that would have been so cool.”
But, the sounds of the Valko Orchestron (doesn’t that sound like the name of someone who should be fighting Barbarella?) and the Chilton Talentmaker (which sounds like a con man a la The Music Man) are just not enough to carry an album to my ears. It sounds like a couple of creative teenagers snuck into the marina before the big debutante dinner, and had their way with the instruments (because they weren’t going to be having any way with the debutantes).
You might call this industrial music, if you recalled that the thrift-store industry is still an industry. Like finding an old suit you like that isn’t exactly your size, and trying magically to make yourself fit into it, OY (and how appropriate is that for an acronym, given the great name of the record label) must take preexisting material and shape their songs to its limitations. And the results are sometimes just as lucky, and sometimes just as misshapen.
Let me put down the gun for a second. To be fair, I have to admit that since writing the earlier part of this text one or two more of the melodies from this album have stayed with me. More than I thought would be the case. I still wish the focus of this project was less on the equipment, but I must give Crow and Hix more credit as songwriters than, perhaps, I have above. The two have multiple other projects, together and separately, not all of which involve the Optigan or cousins, and it seems likely that I might better enjoy them. And so might you, if you are not an entranced member of the Optigan cult.