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The Light-Fingered Feeling of SushiRobo

(Pattern 25; US: 16 Sep 2003; UK: Available as import)

Seattle’s SushiRobo illustrate an interesting contradiction: On the one hand, they seek credibility by crafting an off-center “arty” and “experimental” sound (though this kind of post-punk-lite is no longer an experiment but a firmly entrenched style, and is arty only because it feints at disavowing its commercial intent), full of unlikely hooks built out of short, repeating bass lines, guitar glissandos and space-out effects, and peppy two- or three-note licks. Most songs eschew verse/chorus structure in favor of a layering approach, dropping tracks in and out to create dynamics, leading to climaxes often punctuated by the repetition of a bizarre lyrical refrain. SushiRobo often begin with a loop of an unsettling and incoherent noise, which they then domesticate and naturalize into a riff by dropping in the drum track that reveals the latent rhythm. Everything ultimately has that locked-to-the-grid sound of a competent ProTools performance, despite SushiRobo’s averred disdain for recording software.

Their press kit pushes the “they sound like robots from outer space angle” pretty hard, urging reviewers to consider them in the same class with Wire or Pere Ubu (though really they are more like Cake or the Eels: pristinely recorded, alternative radio—when such a thing existed—pop with quirky texture and a gentle free-floating irony). But at the same time, SushiRobo stress the fact that their music was used as soundtrack music for MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, helping to fashion ersatz moods for the synthetic people who populate these shows, whose very “reality” seems to remove them that much further from the ability to project authentic emotion. Now in the minds of many, these two propositions would seem to cancel each other out—how can a band be on the experimental fringe and provide MTV’s bumper music? But in fact such arguing in the alternative is a common marketing practice.

Marketers expect that each niche audience will dutifully attend only to the hype explicitly directed toward them and ignore all else, so conditioned are we by a constant barrage of ads geared toward our niche that we have become too self-centered to pay attention to anything not immediately flattering our prejudices. Since most rock music has next to no intrinsic meaning (SushiRobo, with their ambiguous, near non sequitur lyrics, are no exception—what is a “light-fingered feeling” anyway? and who cares what, as one of the song titles goes, “Zuckerman’s Favorite Joke” is?) listeners find the materials (be they ads, or reviews, if those two things aren’t the same) that establish the context they need for the music to mean something to them, and filter out everything that jeopardizes that.

Taken individually, SushiRobo’s songs have their merits. To their credit, SushiRobo typically don’t repeat any of their sonic gimmicks from song to song, which gives a sense of the creativity and care invested in them. Even the songs that fail, like the dub dirge “Watch You”, are marked with an attentiveness to detail. But consider the first three songs, which set the album’s tone: “Moonfruit” joins a Silver Apples-style bass line and spacey effects with an effective blend of live and programmed drums as a slightly sinister refrain runs, “I have burned so many witches that I can’t wash off the smell”. “Last Call” hums along at an even, pulsing, Krautrock tempo, with a tremoloed guitar adding nice atmospheric touches. With its careful, minimal arrangement, “New Laboratory Assistant” sounds like something that could have been on the last Spoon album, except the lyrics are a bit more arcane (e.g., “She’s just a trope, my perfect isotope and I’m just the smallest bar of soap”). These songs are as pleasant as they are ephemeral, stubbornly refusing to mean anything. Uncommitted to any specific message or theme, the album, taken as a whole, ends up being about a certain posture, an attitude, a style without any substance. This explains why they are so appropriate for MTV’s lifestyle shows, which hint at a life more exciting and more enviable than the one you are living without actually defining it in concrete terms. SushiRobo conjure the same oppressive feeling: that if you were cooler, you would like them more.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.

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