[13 January 2014]
Connan Mockasin’s seduction scene isn’t quite working for him. I suppose it depends on what your definition of “seductive” is, but the sophomore album from the 30-year-old New Zealand native spends too much of its 40-minute duration navel-gazing instead of turning up the heat. True to its title in most respects, the music of Caramel embodies a gooey, languorous quality that would benefit from the removal of any and all vocals. As for that voice: one moment it’s as if he’s channeling the dead spirit of Barry White, as seen through a haze of hookah smoke, and the next it resembles what I imagine cats might sound like if they were suddenly able to sing to their heart’s content. In the end, it’s Mockasin’s tenorial voice that will prove to be the divisive point of the album, for his uniquely quirky timbre is definitely an acquired taste.
Lounging in bed on the front of the album cover, Mockasin’s coy expression says “come get naked with me.” Blonde, wispy hair flows down the side of his face and covers his brow, and a pencil-thin mustache rests upon his upper lip, eliciting thoughts of Prince, Clark Gable, and eccentric filmmaker John Waters. The honeyed color of the title rests at the bottom of the photograph underneath his golden signature. The image cries out that this is music for getting it on, but I can’t imagine anyone desiring to hear this in the background during their lovemaking sessions. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste.
The straightforward psychedelic pop he crafted with former band The Mockasins has all but taken a backseat to Caramel’s pseudo-erotic, R&B-goes-acid rock vibe. The title track to his previous solo record Forever Dolphin Love and the album’s second song “It’s Choade My Dear” hinted at the direction his sophomore album would take, but I didn’t expect anything like this. The playful mood of his stylistically varied debut has given way to what a collaboration between Ween, Scritti Politti, Prince, and the guitar-stylings of Cream might sound like, if recorded in an opium den, laced with LSD and presented as a dissolving sugar cube on the tongue. The final recording isn’t as inventive as an artistic alliance of that magnitude, but there is no denying the man leaves a distinct impression.
The album begins with the sounds of overly processed vocals, asthmatic breathing, narcoleptic guitars, high-pitched squeals, and the occasional come-hither sigh. With all the giggling and deep moaning, it’s obvious that sex is the reigning subject at hand, but I wouldn’t exactly call these sounds arousing. The first two tracks drift by like sugar-spun cotton candy swirling about in the air, coming and going without making much of an impression other than establishing the mood of the record. Both “Nothing Lasts Forever” and the subsequent title track of the album are mere sketches of songs, but the production embodies the essence of what I would imagine it might be like to swim in a vat of thick caramel.
I was on board until the elfin orgy commenced with the most “radio-friendly” track of the record, “I’m the Man, That Will Find You”. The song finds its sleazy groove and then that oddly disturbing voice, previously smothered in the mix, comes bobbing to the surface. Mockasin’s put-upon, quirky falsetto was perfectly suited for the lo-fi indie rock of his debut, but in this caterwauling, choral-layered setting it comes off as creepily unsettling instead. It’s a shame, because it ends up distracting from what’s intrinsically a brilliant song. I’m assuming the piercing wail that concludes the track was meant to be perceived as soulful, but it dissolves into some sort of parody of emotion. I actually laughed out loud, a response I’m pretty sure he wasn’t intending to elicit when he sang it.
“Do I Make You Feel Shy?” bathes in the glow of soft-lit sexual innocence, calling to mind both “Menopause Man” and “Round and Round” off Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s album Before Today. Setting aside his tendency to channel Tiny Tim on amphetamines, this song is by far the most straightforward track on the entire record. It’s also one of the clear highlights, primarily because it strips back the eccentricity, displays the true timbre of Mockasin’s voice, and showcases his strengths as a songwriter.
Things get truly weird from here on out. “Why Are You Crying?” consists of five minutes and 25 seconds of aleatory sobbing and lustful whimpering beneath laidback guitar improvisation. From convulsive gasps to the 16-minute, five-track suite that is “It’s Your Body”, things derail from then on out. It takes track “1” two minutes to hit its stride before an actual song appears, and the remaining set suffers from a similar, undisciplined lack of editing.
Track “3” sounds like something out of a B-horror movie, while tracks “4” and “5” bleed into one another, offering little except woozy guitars, giggling Japanese school girls, and a woman thanking Connan for what I’m assuming would be his “services”. The melodic theme from “Caramel” returns in the background at the end of the suite, and the final Bee Gees homage “I Wanna Roll With You” commences with Mockasin’s altered voice responding, “Uhhhh! You’re very welcome…come, come, come.” It’s all a bit eye-rolling, as if the previous 34 minutes of moaning and cooing weren’t sufficiently transparent enough to spell out that this is “music for a tranquilized sexual romp.”
Written and recorded completely by himself, during a month spent in a Tokyo hotel room with a tape machine, guitar, and microphone, Caramel revels in excess. There’s a reason producers are hired. I’m all about sculpting a mood, but there’s such a thing as musical overindulgence. Coital sighs and the sounds of murky ‘70s porno guitar licks don’t exactly create atmospheric continuity. I failed to mention that the record is supposedly a concept album about a man being in love with a dolphin, a car race, and a car crash. I guess that peculiar lyrical content was smothered in the dark, creamy substance of the title, because it’s completely non-existent in the album I heard, except for some sirens appearing at the end of “It’s Your Body 3”. Being an immense fan of his debut, I’m hopeful that this record is but a mere artistic detour. Caramel would have made an intriguing EP, but as a full length album it’s a true test of patience for the listener and the musical equivalent of awkwardly stumbling into a room where your sweat-drenched parents are having sex. No one wants to see or hear any of that.