[8 November 2010]
They’re not real Ray-Bans, but you would have to look closely to tell the difference. I found the uncanny knock-off sunglasses down at New York’s Canal Street, the densely merchandised parallel universe where women and very particular men can go to hunt for designer goods of questionable legality (or more easily accessible imitations for the price of an egg roll combo). Secret doors swing open to reveal gleaming Gucci purses, but be quick or you could be trapped for hours during a cop lockdown. Salespersons communicating by walkie-talkie utter brand names to passersby, and if something catches the ear, you’ll get filtered through and passed off until the right connection has been made. It’s basically the Home Shopping Network set in a John Woo flick.
If the vendors on Canal Street sold music, they would probably have something like Motorifik’s Secret Things stuffed in a box behind the all the luggage. The Manchester duo (Working For A Nuclear Free City’s Phil Kay and French songwriter Idrisse Khelifi) traffic in accessible imitations a lot like those sunglasses; that is, well above satisfactory, and only those with the most acute of senses will detect a glitch in the Matrix. Even nostalgia connoisseurs could mistake the thundering title track for an obscure ‘80s gem.
Motorifik would quiver with delight at the notion. The duo’s MySpace page lists a screenshot’s worth of influences spanning every presidential administration since Kennedy, including Sonic Youth, King Crimson, and, um, “Van Fucking Morrison”. The Beatles are listed twice. There’s no bio, but a kid-you-not full copy-paste job of the influences poignantly fills in the “sounds like” section. Aside from a record label listed, Motorifik prefer to play mystery men, eschewing titillating tweets and letting Secret Things’ oceanic, swoony romanticism do the talking. The songs just need a vocal filter at times.
There’s hardly a lick of Astral Weeks or “Brown Eyed Girl” here, but the rest of the album is an indie geek’s I Spy, and flashes of originality might as well be a read through Where’s Waldo: Gone Baggy! For Motorifik, personal stamps come second to showing off Manchester, twee and goth influences like a shiny badge. While bands certainly should rally around shared influences as both a reference point and a defense against riff soup, Secret Things gets ridiculous. Motorifik’s very name recalls an entire subgenre, as it’s very close to motorik, the kinetic German sound that propelled Kraftwerk and Neu! into the rock lexicon.
If this was intentional, it’s certainly a curveball; Motorifik don’t draw from one particular pop music aquifer. They’re equal opportunity grazers, favoring no particular decade over another but generally coming off like something Sire would have put out in 1989. Do you like echoing, cavernous paeans to Echo And The Bunnymen? Try “Ghosts” and “Secret Things” on for size. If the Reagan era’s washed out aesthetic doesn’t cut it for you, “Flames on the Ocean” dials back the pretense, a cassette-demo introduction giving the slow pitch to night radio strings and waifish background vocals. And as if Kay’s hardware crashed from influence overload, it’s all wiped away at the end except for a low drone retreating into the waves. Is your type of music indie rock circa 2005? Motorifik’s got your back on that one, too. Just get past the squalling harmonica out of Marshall Crenshaw’s wet dream in the surf-gaze of “A Vision”, and you’ll love the downplayed guitars.
Of course, it would be a feat of strength to spit out your own thesis without even a trace of originality in the phlegm. One of Motorifik’s nifty devices is clouding the vocals just enough to make the lyrics too tricky to decipher, while still maintaining the clarity and punch of their favorite ‘80s post-punk acts. The other decidedly Motorifik quality is juxtaposition. Those holding breath for math-rock tempo changes will be crestfallen, but these guys have minced up their record collection into some equally jarring transitions (see the aforementioned what-the-fuck harmonica in “A Vision”). The lonely strummer in “Nostalgie” pierces the fog after the whirring drum machines from the Danger Mouse-y “Used Angel” die down. And “Nameless Colour” sounds a lot like Ben Gibbard donning an Elliott Smith suit, but just when you’re lost in the wool, the sparkling coal of “Ghosts” tumbles in with a drafty take on the Human League.
Make no mistake, this is a set of frequently enjoyable songs by men who have obviously spent time with thousands of them trying to crack the code. Kay and Khelifi fail here, but the shortcomings are as intriguing as the successes. With a spring in its step, album standout “Sleep Forever” does nicely with that rainy English sound only boys from Manchester can sweep together. But while they’ve tapped into the cerebral energy of childhood, Motorifik need to sort out which of its many influences are the most important now, at this point in their lives. Sure, all smiles are deserved for being open-minded enough to dig both Morrissey and Hendrix, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to hear Jimi’s ghost spray acid-fuzz all over a Smiths cut. A couple split-second attention spans sound like they’ve kept Motorifik from being truly great in forging their identity, even if that identity is proudly derivative. As it is, I suggest a good pair of sunglasses when absorbing Secret Things’ blinding spectrum of influences.