[30 April 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In my younger, (more) sad bastard days, I was always confused by the Tin Man. Why would someone trudge through Oz trying to get, of all things, a heart? Surely, those of us who have one already know how much trouble it can be, how easily it can break. But the Tin Man wanted one, and got it, and The Return to Oz did nothing to address what had to be some emotional growing pains for him, opting instead to see Fairuza Balk take on some guys with wheels for hands. I spent many years sure that the Tin Man had got his heart, went looking for the Tin Woman, and he found out pretty quick that having a heart means getting it stomped on from time to time.
I mention all this because I Am Robot and Proud’s 2001 debut album, The Catch, now re-released by Darla Records, is the sound of the Tin Man coming to grips with his heart. It is thirty minutes of warm electronics framed by the most basic and most effective of pop sensibilities. Overall, it is a very bright sounding record. The drums are understated and the bass to these songs melts into everything else, content not to thump all the other elements into obscurity. It predates Postal Service, and came out at nearly the same time as Dntel’s first record, but there is the same Tamborello-esque feeling of calm over the album, and fans of Dntel and Give Up would surely enjoy The Catch as well.
It is not easy to make an album completely made by electronics sound organic, but that is exactly what I Am Robot and Proud (a.k.a. Shaw-Han Liem) does. There is a soul pulsing behind all these bleeps, one that sets it apart from other electronic music. A major pitfall of the genre on the whole is that much of it sounds like an intellectual exercise. Things like danceability and entertainment are a mere afterthought, if they are considered at all. Instead, loud, bass-heavy beats are crammed with obscure or ironic samples and jarring screeches that call more attention to the artist than the music. Liem, however, has put a record together with a feeling in mind, and one that comes across and adds a dimension to The Catch that brings the listener into the record, letting them participate.
The album is divided in the eight titled songs, but really there are no individual songs here, the eight tracks instead used to delineate movements in the flow of the album. All the warm fuzz of these tracks and the optimistic energy of early tracks like “The Catch” and “Saturday Afternoon Plans” lend the album a pervasive wistfulness. Early on, the Tin Man—if I can keep going with that inane comparison—is trying out his new heart, and feeling pretty good about it. Around track five, “Eyes Closed Hopefully”, is where the switch comes. The album gets quiet and slows down. The warmth that had been so strong to this point cools, and slowly but surely the listener feels some worry and doubt float into the music. The Catch takes on a journey-like quality. The music seems to lend itself not only to an emotional excursion, but to a literal quest. And the quest picks up again with “Satellite Kids”, which at first feels like the bouncy tracks at the beginning of the record. But then the high hat picks up on the drums, and the cymbals come in, and there’s a little bit of panic here, as if the person I imagine traveling through the landscape of the album has broken into an all-out run, away from something.
“Julie’s Equation”, the album’s final track, starts with a guitar-sounding synth line, and it is about as menacing as the whole album gets. This song broods and trudges along, implying both fatigue and escape. It also gives a vantage point at which to look back at this disc. In the end, this final tracks ends with a hopeful lift. But to listen to the album again, knowing now where it ends, it shows itself to have a pretty intelligent design. The Catch is an album of hope, of the Tin Man dealing with the pitfalls of the heart, but it is not a hope easily earned.
Also included on the re-release is the EP Spring Summer Autumn Winter, and unfortunately it exposes a weakness that detracts some from The Catch. On the EP, we see the same tricks used, the same movements in the music, with little variation, and the sameness of it takes some of the shine off of The Catch. This isn’t the first time extra material bogged down a re-release, but it is no less disappointing to enjoy an album only to be tired out by the tack-ons. But pick up the album anyway, and shake your ass to the Tin Man’s anomie.