Shawn Lees Ping Pong Orchestra: Voices and Choices

[30 January 2007]

By Mike Schiller

Odd as it may sound for a man who has no less than eight albums (four solo, and four as his Ping Pong Orchestra) to his credit since 1996, Shawn Lee is probably now known more for his work in a video game than his actual album-oriented output.  You see, Lee is responsible for the music of Rockstar Games’ fantastic Bully, a game whose soundtrack somehow managed to combine the majestic-yet-twisted sensibility of Danny Elfman with the pop and pathos associated with adolescence.  Lee has said that he recorded over 100 hours of music for the game, and it shows—it’s a score that’s always interesting, constantly changing, and yet never obtrusive—it’s the perfect backdrop for 40 hours of walking around, making mischief, and resetting the social order of what comes off as the worst prep school in America.

It is unfortunately, however, many of the same qualities that make the Bully score so effective that make Lee’s own work on the Ping Pong Orchestra’s recently-released Voices and Choices so disposable—they are suited far better for the background than any sort of active listening.

That distinction is an odd one for an album whose apparent selling point, given the title Voices and Choices, would seem to be that vocals are a major part of the ingredient list for this incarnation of the Ping Pong Orchestra.  Granted, the entire inspiration for the existence of the Ping Pong Orchestra, as Lee tells it, is the so-called library records of past decades, volumes of music created for the sole purpose of serving as background music for TV shows and movies.  Lee has a fascination with this sort of music, and often seems to have a genre in mind as he forms his compositions (spy movie music would seem to be a favorite genre of Lee’s).  And indeed, I could see much of Voices and Choices functioning just fine as said background music, particularly quirky tracks like the oddly bouncy-yet-dissonant “Fiendish Fifth”, the Mission Impossible-esque evocations of “Changing Times”, and particularly the didgeridoo-infested closing track, “Jawbreaker”.  These are songs crying out for indie films, ones that don’t necessarily take themselves too seriously, ones that, preferably, contain an action sequence or two; perhaps a car chase, or a well-dressed man flying an ornithopter to freedom.

So it follows, then, that as Lee’s purely instrumental selections function well enough toward their respective aims, one would expect that the vocal selections could, at least, work as end-credit music.  This turns out not to be the case, however—“Kiss the Sky”, for instance, is a trip-hoppy slow-burn featuring the fantastic vocals of Nino Moschella that’s had all of the soul squeezed out of it via studio compression, making it more suited to a “CSIs pouring things into test tubes and looking at things under microscopes” scene than any sort of soundtrack-seller.  The French-language “Françoise Hardy” is interesting enough, all building strings and plucked acoustic guitar, but the obvious language barrier will prevent many from identifying with its charms.  In fact, the only track on which Voices and Choices transcends the dreaded “background” label is “The Hour Glass Effect”, an excellent, wistfully jazzy hip-hop track with Ohmega Watts showing up to do a pretty decent rap about the passing of time.  As Watts speaks, the pianos insistently help to keep the beat and horns float ominously in the background, successfully setting mood and convincing whoever might be listening to put down what they’re doing and listen.

Regrettably, such success is short-lived, as the album quickly re-relegates itself to the background once “The Hour Glass Effect” passes by, despite flirtations with flamenco and bossa nova.  Capturing a listener’s interest for one track out of 16 is not a favorable ratio.  Even as that may be the case, it’s hard to criticize Voices and Choices for this, as Lee is clear that his aim is to be placed alongside the library records he so loves; still, it’s also hard to imagine anyone enjoying this album other than those who share Lee’s obscure affinities.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/shawn-lees-ping-pong-orchestra-voices-and-choices/