[5 April 2010]
Brian Eno infamously surmised in a 1995 article for Wired magazine that “The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them”. Eno meant this as a body assessment, suggesting that the stillness of the corporeal interface with computers was an imprisoning confinement, particularly when compared to the elasticity and fluidity of indigenous instrumental playing techniques. Nevertheless, many in the non-breakbeat-based electronic music milieu inured this embarrassment as a sonic insult, spending a good deal of the ‘naughts apologizing with all manners of rhythmic emancipation, freeing the temporal structure of software-based engineering from the constrained thrust of backbeats and kick-drum metronomes alone.
Mi Ami guitarist, vocalist, and spokesperson Daniel Martin-McCormick has remarked several times in interviews that the tendency of music critics to call this loosening of rhythm “African” or “tribal” carries with it a nasty aftertaste of neocolonialism. These shorthands are markers and signifiers that are hard to avoid though when approaching Martin-McCormick’s band, particularly the percussion of Damon Palermo, who often sounds like he’s playing with bonus limbs with which the rest of us were not graced.
Of the group’s three members (bassist Jacob Long is the third), Palermo is the only one who is not a veteran of Dischord-based scronky punks Black Eyes. Unsurprisingly, his musical upbringing involves a weaning on a steady diet of dance music. After Black Eyes split, Martin-McCormack went back to school, studied classical guitar, and got wildly experimental in Sex Worker, which released some work on the excellent Not Not Fun label. Apparently, there was also a free jazz unit in there somewhere too. Then, a few years back, Mi Ami emerged with a sound that was truly… tribal.
I’m not saying that to be purely provocative, but the term functions well as an exorcism of both the sonics and the body movements that are elicited through the labor of the sound and force on Mi Ami’s 12-inches, last year’s excellent Watersports, and their new album Steal Your Face. This isn’t to say that the bass-drums-guitar unit outwardly rejects the Western canon. By all measures, Mi Ami are a rock band. Yet, even amidst the war cries and raindance beats, Mi Ami’s music expresses a communality of sound, the band at times seemingly encompassing a whole clan. Although Palermo commands the drums with a hypersonic urgency (largely with his hands veering away from the elementary snare and kick foundations), his tachycardic palpitations sound even noisier and fuller with the presence of Martin-McCormick and Long at his side, and vice versa with those two guys. With dubby echo all over the vocal exercises and bass grooves, as well as the various patches of effects complementing the wiry atonal guitar gymnastics, Long and Martin-McCormick both sound like they’re each several people deep. To put it simply, it’s a bigger sound than one might imagine coming out of a compact unit. Mi Ami are a sublimating power, a focused machine, that functions best as a single, raucously loud instrument.
It’s this aggression that will surely keep Mi Ami out of even the most eclectic deejay playlists. Whereas most club sets build their way up to the frenzied phrases, Steal Your Face starts off by losing its shit. The opening track, “Harmonics (Genius of Love)”, starts off practically mid-yelp, the bassline fluctuating like a migraine already in progress. This jolting start reinforces the album’s inevitable status as an aftershock to Watersports. And while Steal Your Face confronts a whole new series of lyrical obsessions and collects a perhaps more melodic lot of songs, play the two albums back to back and one is bound to hear a continuum.
Thus, Steal Your Face, while still maintaining its fair share of robust moments, can often feel a bit second-tier. Perhaps it’s because Watersports felt more spontaneous. The uncaged rabidity of the second album’s tactiles seems to strive mainly on bloodlust, rather than endured anguish, which is odd since Steal Your Face seems to be all about dis- and mis-connection, particularly the kind one would feel after a messy breakup. As if composing a No Wave Blood Visions, Martin-McCormick froths in feral desperation like he’s one noose short an Ian Curtis.
“I’ve been walking next to you and all that I can see / Is that light which fades away / I’m only 25 years old and already I’m worried about / Living out my life in shades of gray”, he says, nearly defeated, on “Slow”. The languid, sludgy paced “Dreamers”, which reminds me a bit of something off of Chromatics’ Plaster Hounds LP, is perhaps the only track on the album with little magic or surprise to it, counter to its title. Yet, it almost makes sense to dull the momentum at this point as the lyrics indicate a “breaking apart so slow”. It’s as if Martin-McCormick can see the split happening, but feels helpless to intervene.
The extensive use of the tom-tom and cooing vocals on “Native American (Born in the U.S.A)” give it an upbeat vibe, soundtracking a wagon trail trek across the Midwestern plains, but the lyrics are as bleak as a black, moonless winter. “I need you more / Than what I got”, Martin-McCormick says, before ending with a list of items that don’t “make a difference”, concluding with the defeatist mantra of “If it was any different, it wouldn’t make a difference / The thoughts in your head, they don’t make a difference / Forget it friend, it’ll never be any different”.
What uproots this alienation from the anthemic is Martin-McCormick’s vocal style. He transforms himself into a vital instrument through banshee shrieks and staccato yips that play as avant-garde as any of the other layers of methodical chaos supporting him. Caked in reverb, androgynous, at times adolescent, and regularly drowned out by the din surrounding it, Martin-McCormick’s countertenor voices often appears to be coming from some third place, an unholy hybrid of Kathleen Hanna, the Rapture’s Luke Jenner (I dare you to listen to Martin-McCormick scream “salsa lessons for your muth-aaaaaaairrr” on “Latin Lover” and not instantly think of Jenner), and Yasuko Onuki of Melt Banana.
If these references now seem a decade too old, Mi Ami may have arrived better late than never. Their sonic environment is like Afrobeat with the funk extracted, what !!! should have sounded like but were too amateur to pull off. On Steal Your Face, this elective reaches its pinnacle on “Secrets”, a Tourette’s burst of wobbly tremolo, manic lips, and guitar played like Sun Ra keyboards. The notable exception to this funklessness, though, is the disco hooks on “Latin Lover”, which is perhaps the most bouncy and commercial thing the band have ever done, at least before the point in the song where the band jams on it and begins emulating the sounds of Nintendo firearms and pinball machine explosions.
The latter track also oddly quotes Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in the narrator’s desperate attempt to find a partner. It’s not the only early-‘80s pop music reference on the album either. Two others are parenthetically cited in the song names “Native Americans (Born in the U.S.A.)” and “Harmonics (Genius of Love)”. Rather than just being an ironical turn of phrase, these references read in the lyrics sheets like cold despondency, like when you turn on the radio after a bad breakup and all the words take on a corroded new meaning.
“Harmonics (Genius of Love)” turns the utopianism of the Tom Tom Club’s patented original line “I’m in heaven with my boyfriend, my lucky boyfriend” on its head, stressing the mass of confusion that arises between two people with different perceptions on what the connection of two bodies means. The differences in dread and excitement between “Tuesday” and “Friday” wind up leaving both partners frigid. “I couldn’t believe this body was my body / When my body became her body… Something still inside my body / Something leaving as I’m coming”, eventually deciding through all the turmoil and confusion that “My body, it’s so fucked / I just gotta move”
The hopelessness that accompanies a depression, for both a person and a nation, can be catatonically crippling. Sometimes one just needs to do something, anything to get out of the state of confinement imposed upon him or herself. If losing face is a self-imposed loss of respect, then stealing one’s face would appear to be what happens when someone perpetrates the same kind of indignity on someone else (something with which many can surely relate in these times of financial/spiritual crisis). Those who’ve had their faces stolen may feel that the body is the only thing that’s left to engage with. Steal Your Face isn’t a great album, but there will no doubt be plenty, those who “just gotta move”, who find it rightly cathartic, an extended primal scream into the night, an attempt to reconnect with the tribe before the distantiation of our solipsism pushes us too far away for this to remain a possibility.