[21 July 2010]
One might describe Mahjongg in two ways that are inverse possibilities. First, Mahjongg plays an aggressive style of dance music. Second, Mahjongg plays a dance-y and poppy style of noise music. On first listening to their third full-length album, The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger, I would have gone with the latter description. But after multiple listens, I’m more inclined to class Mahjongg as a noisy dance band.
Right away, I unreservedly liked this album. It was noisy and repetitive, without neglecting pop hooks. Mahjongg incorporates interesting elements of pop music without confining the songs to a typical structure. The result is an uncompromising sound in which harsh verges on sweet.
Each song is built around a groove that is split between a repetitive keyboard riff and percussive sequencing. The melodies often wrap around the time signature, producing a stretching effect. The rhythms therefore sound more complicated than the typical 4/4 of rock. Many of the songs seem to gather inspiration from that sound of “world music” filtered through post-punk (i.e., Talking Heads or Pop Group, representing two sides of another divide between pop and harsh). On top of that, add elements of ‘80s and ‘90s dance music which, to a certain extent, tame the noise without reducing the confrontational sound.
As I continued to play the album, something kept getting on my nerves. The best way to characterize this annoyance is with one word: vocoder. Now, Mahjongg doesn’t go overboard with the vocoder, but it is heavily featured on at least half of the songs on this short album. It may boil down to a matter of taste. For me, the vocoder isn’t initially offensive, but over time, it begins to release an inevitable toxin. (I find the same experience after multiple listens to Black Moth Super Rainbow, a band that also overuses the vocoder). It’s not the vocoder in itself that causes the problem, though; it’s merely representative.
The best test case is the album’s centerpiece, “Grooverider Free”, a nine-minute track that splits in the middle to reproduce in miniature the divide Mahjongg seems to want to continually saddle. Immediately, the song goes to the commonplaces of dance music: a busy synth line gives way to a cheesy melody sung through a vocoder. This repeats for half the song. It makes me think of a clichéd late night scene on the dance floor, perhaps not such a bad thing. One could argue that the robotic vocals parody the repetitive dance-diva vocals that mark the most obnoxious dance songs. Fortunately, this part of the song breaks down, and then speeds up into a crazy drum and bass line. We go from ‘80s disco trash to ‘90s heavy electronics, complete with samples of people talking, little synth leads, and a repetitive chant of “a New World Order.” This ends up saving the song.
There’s something intentionally obnoxious about Mahjongg, which might be part of their sense of humor. All noise-influenced music walks this thin line. The usual failure occurs when a band underestimates the difficulty of making good noise. Mahjongg has no problem here. “Gooble”, “Wardance”, and “Devry” are all completely successful as frenetic, harsh dance songs. On “Devry”, arguably the best track on the album, Mahjongg uses the vocoder in the best possible way. The song has a great glam call-and-response melody that is reminiscent of both Suede and Guns N’ Roses, while remaining completely impersonal. None of the vocals make it through unprocessed and this is not a problem in itself. Using the vocal track as another layer of instrumentation rather than as the focus of a song is one of the best ways to undo the monolithic structure of pop music. Particularly in the realm of electronic music, a crisp and clean vocal line is difficult to pull off without ending up sounding like the current manufactured pop.
Instead, Mahjongg’s problem is that they still manage to veer too far into cheese. It’s not enough to make this a bad album. Half of it is great. But the other half loses its sheen very quickly. The Caribbean disco of the opener, “Gooble”, is infectious and upbeat. It could go on a few minutes longer and still maintain its freshness. It is followed by “Miami Knights”, which relies so heavily on those same old obvious dance song elements of a pulsing synth and an annoying vocoder melody that even the interesting part, a repeated halting of the beat, can’t save it. In fact, interest quickly becomes annoyance when surrounded by those well-worn techniques.
When Mahjongg works out the mixture of its sound to its own advantage, the band is able to inject funk into heavily processed music, a noteworthy feat. If it only stayed with the noisier elements of its composition, Mahjongg would produce a more satisfying compound. Anything repetitive runs the risk of becoming obnoxious. Noise annoys, but so does cheesy dance music.