Howard Robot delivers one of 2009's most endearing pop records. Plus Alison Moyet and Dean Wareham.
Soft Core, title and cover art notwithstanding, marks the point where the music of Howard Robot (neé Rigberg) moves completely beyond the My Robot Friend concept. If you're not familiar with the My Robot Friend story, here's a brief summary.
After playing in a New York City band, Howard Robot teamed up with electroclash heroes Le Tigre, mostly as a dancer. He then decided to make his own do-it-yourself electronic pop, and adopted the My Robot Friend moniker. His live performances, like a mix of Laurie Anderson and Flight of the Conchords, feature Robot performing in a robot suit that lights up and shoots fire, among other novelties. Though he scored an underground hit with 2004 debut Hot Action, the music has always seemed like just one aspect of the My Robot Friend construct. But that changes on Soft-Core.
The general sound is what you'd expect from My Robot Friend. Pulsing sequencers and sharp-edged analog synthesizers abound. There's still a detached, sarcastic smirk behind some of the songs, but there's surprising emotion and depth, too. Granted, you might not get that idea from first track, "Robot High School", which is an especially robotic number about exactly what its title suggests. The shards of synthesizer-produced, would-be guitar and Robot's monotone delivery create a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere that recalls original late-1970s synth pioneers Fad Gadget and Human League. Robot adds a nice dose of 21st Century self-awareness, though. "Everything I say about my bad education / A million broken records have already said", he admits, before saying more about his bad education.
It's a thrilling ride of an opener, but you can get only so far on songs about robots. Thus, "Robot High School" is followed by a pair of unabashed, wonderfully melodic love songs. "Misfits Fight Song", one of a pair of collaborations with Washington, DC synth-pop revivalist Outputmessage, features great harmonies and a giddy, near-bubblegum rhythm with tumbling, New Order-style drums. The warm, fuzzy, sublime "By Your Side" is evidence Robot's tastes expand beyond synths to dreampop. In case there's any question, Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 / Luna fame drops by to add some moody guitar shading. Three tracks in, Soft-Core is already showing impressive range.
And it continues. "Boyfriend" uses Duane Eddy-style spy guitar to chide someone for choosing an abusive relationship. "How'd you get to be so fucked-up in the head?" goes Robot's refrain. It's easily the album\'s most sardonic moment, but then it's offset by the genuinely introspective, Depeche Mode-style doom-pop of "The Short Game". Here, Robot's voice, a pleasant yet modest croon that's like a more tuneful Moby, approaches something soulful. George Michael actually comes to mind, and not in a bad way.
Soft-Core gets seven tracks in before Robot plays his trump card, though. He brings in veteran English singer Alison Moyet to deliver the sassy, short-but-sharp "Waiting". This is a brilliant move because Moyet is still loved for her early-'80s work with Vince Clarke in synth-pop outfit Yazoo (Yaz in the US). Boy, does she still have it, too. Her husky, bluesy, emotionally bare voice is as powerful as ever, the perfect juxtaposition to the icy electronics. After the first verse, the song has nowhere to go, but by then you won't care anyway, you'll be so lost in electro-ecstasy. Moyet's recent Yazoo reunion hasn't yet yielded any new material, but "Waiting" makes a strong case for a more substantial Moyet/Robot collaboration.
After that point, Soft-Core slows down and mellows out. "Astronaut" has a laid back, Velvet Underground type vibe, with an earnest, emotive chorus. Not coincidentally, Wareham again features. The last couple tracks fade into the background before Robot reprises "Waiting", this time in an acoustic folk flavor. In this context, without Moyet, the tune is actually stronger, but the point is harder to discern. Then, Robot stops beating around the bush with an electro cover of Luna's "23 Minutes in Brussels". It's an anti-climactic, unfocused ending to an otherwise fascinating album.
With Soft-Core, My Robot Friend has shown it can function as a very good indie pop band as well as an exercise in concept art. This is an album you can really get into, one that makes effective use of synthesizers and occasional irony, but does not flaunt them. And it has plenty of heart. In other words, it's one of the best pop albums of the year.