Get Physical continues their impressive run of mainstream-friendly yet quirky and surprising electronic records with Smoke the Monster Out. The debut full-length from Crosstown Rebels founder Damian Lazarus touches on the kind of brooding house and ethereal downtempo that perfectly sets the mood for a night on the town, as long as you leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. Just beneath the dance-friendly exterior, the heart of the record lays in pop songwriting that subtly becomes twisted into the form of creepy children’s stories.
Smoke the Monster Out is like the music equivalent of the film vein of “adult fairy-tales” that includes Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth and Terry Gilliam’s underrated Tideland. The cover art perfectly captures this style. Featuring a full-sized, dead-eyed panda bear head topping the body of a youthful girl as she performs a curtsey with a finger coyly touching her lips, the cover is equal parts disturbing and endearing. It reflects the effort of a record trying to retain its innocence as it is absorbed by a world that is forced to deal with its own well-publicized dark side.
“Moment” is a song driven by soothing strings, a lullaby-like piano, and male vocals that lyrically embrace the whimsical wonder of youth, coming off like a child trying to stay awake after his parents sent him to bed. It could be confused for a Badly Drawn Boy or Graham Coxon track until about two minutes in, when a 4/4 beat starts popping and a female singer repeats the “let’s bring this moment alive” refrain. The track retains its whimsy through the transition, despite the odd discordant synth moan, but an introduced bass warp lends a slightly offbeat edge to the affair.
Likewise, read at face value, “Come and Play” could be seen as an obvious ode to play, a notion that takes on a completely different context among children than it does adults. Yet, the track samples Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, notable as being the theme song to poorly aging Scream films. Aside from the ominous tone of the female vocals, the interpolation of one of Cave’s most sinister tracks tips the balance of “Come and Play” into the shade. Furthermore, it sounds to me like “After Rave Delight” makes a subtle homage to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, whatever that might mean to you.
Despite the album’s minor successes, Damian does not execute his aesthetic flawlessly. It is hard to pull off the “adult fairy-tale” without the benefit of expensive CG vocals and the twisted mind of Terry Gilliam. Listeners may find themselves somewhat conflicted on exactly how to take this album. Cute and creepy naturally conflict, typically forcing one to view the work from either extreme.
To its credit, Smoke the Monster Out is well crafted and engaging, so listeners will likely stick around and commit themselves to thinking about what side the album falls on. From an artistic standpoint, that makes the album a success, but it will likely never become a commercial one (at least, not on the level that Booka Shade has enjoyed). Mixed feelings do not often end up with great sales figures, but I would hope that is not Damian’s sole goal anyway. In that case, this is a good album to start building a career on.