I Am Robot and Proud: Uphill City

Artful, playful, voiceless, building block constructions. Big in Japan.

I Am Robot and Proud

Uphill City

Contributors: Shaw-Han Liem
Label: Darla
US Release Date: 2008-10-28
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

Editor's note: On January 9, 2009, The New York Times ran a guest column penned by Bono. Here, D.M. Edwards offers his own parodic spin on the U2 singer's prose.

Once upon a Thursday evening in January...

I’m jammed into a Dallas bar. Thursday is the new Friday -- at least in my head. Glasses wiped, plastic swiped; it’s a secure Puritan version of revelry. The worst is over: the frenzied season of consuming, mood swings, traveling, buying and returning. Always to be resumed. What’s to be heard on this, the quarter-of-an-hour mark since a Chimay was taken to abate the melancholic ache for Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in a pint glass.

Push out from the interior mood into the faces; open as scratched off lottery tickets. There’s glee, but it’s a forced and slightly desperate defiance of the predicted money gloom and doom. We are all DJs on this Bring Your iPod to Town night. I fiddle with my tunes, awaiting my turn as some old codger goes for easy sentimentality with Sinatra’s “My Way” (a song drained of all meaning by ubiquity) and is ignored by the locals crowding the fireplace, swirling their brownish liquids. The old fella sings along, but it seems more to annoy everyone else. Early Microdisney lyrics swim in my head: “Brandy glass, gentleman / A rakish hat, The Racing Times / His liver gave out, he took to bed / They shipped him away, for surgery”. Then I earbud a song that puts me in the moment: it’s Mr_Hopkinson’s_Computer covering “Fake Plastic Trees”. No one sings along, as no one else hears this perfect digital croon, this ode to artificiality and human distance. It’s in the glorious tradition of singing robots, recalling Eedie & Eddie’s “Some Velvet Morning”, and the qualities the voice lacks are what it it is all the better for: sentimentality, sexuality, guilt, experience. Less is more and less mawkish.

Is this disembodied noise a clue to the future? Not really. But it speaks to the current anomie and alienation. In the mist of uncertainty in your business life, your love life, your virtual life, Mr_Hopkinson’s Computer’s voice is a spiritual, fake, coded, romantic remorse. It’s a bunch of dead roses for the Chairmen of all the Boards.

I’m getting carried away by a voice that speaks the unutterable truth: “If I could be who you wanted, all the time.” Then what? I’d be a robot, and proud! Sleek and running to fab, not fat, or pumped with pretentious egotistical gibberish. Roll over HAL, move forward one letter and tell IBM the news. When my turn comes, I play “Something to Write Home About”, the opening track from I Am Robot and Proud’s new one. The building blocks of pure pop drain the emotion from the room. I can’t cope with the near trepidation. The old guy mutters “futuristic” and a tattooed girl whispers “retro” and I realize that they’re both right. This voiceless music will never sound like today. It leads anywhere but here and now. But to me it describes the state we’re in. Detached and bemused.

Now I’m back in my own house in East Dallas, uncorking some Walmart wine ($2.97) to share and to wash down salt and vinegar crisps and a cheese and salad cream sandwich. I know what I’ll dream about when suitably horizontal. But first, right by the hole-in-the-wall cellar, I look up to see a painting I did after I heard I Am Robot and Proud on John Peel’s radio show nearly a decade ago. As I recall, the music was a lovely swish of flickering pastel and my watercolor spills life, light, and the light reflected off sweetbreads onto a piece of that old computer paper -- the green reams which used to spew onto the floor. A mad green vomiting of violent line buzzing wobbles cobbling together we knew not what. Electronic squiggles; quaint, modern.

Now, I Am Robot and Proud are genuinely big in Japan. This latest album charted on Oricon (their equivalent of Billboard) and was Top 10 on their iTunes chart. I have listened to Uphill City in my house and in my car driving in Plano, Texas, which was a thrill -- looking out onto the llamas and the occasional broad-daylight coyote, no hills for hundreds of miles. That’s plenty of miles. But on the night in question a house guest looked at my painting as we listened together, so I said:

“The painting is called ‘Spazz’ and you can have it.”

She had to drive miles and was under the influence. Little pissy, slurred replies:

“I don’t usually hang with men who…urgh…over there…are they…ear..wigs?”

I ask how far she has to drive.

“Miles. It’s a long, long, long road. I kid you not. Fool.”

She asks if I’ll sing “Fairytale of New York” with her on the karaoke machine, and when I seem confused, I realize she's talking about a present she’s propped in the corner of the room.

“To be frank,” I say, “I’m feeling more blank than…sentimental.”

So we go for the least sentimental voice in the history of pop music which is, of course, the absence of a voice. The ten electro-pop constructions on Uphill City. After a good start -- the aforementioned “Something to Write Home About” -- the title track is less an ode to insomnia than a cure for it. A flurry of gamelanesque notes evoke Reich-on-45, but this delicate fermentation soon cracks into a muscular parody of funky minimalism. We listen to “Making a Case for Magic”, but it fails to invite the transposition of one’s own feelings onto it’s blippy emotional current.

I decide I must avoid the karaoke and the unhinged descent into raucous rabble-rousing, and another present helps: The Bruichladdich, a rare Islay single malt, aged 15 years. I pour one for me, one to ensure this baby will be less able to take to the road, and make a promise to rig up the electronics for a duet, even as I fear this will melt the remains of the night into a heartbreaking puddle of defeat. But maybe my voice will improve with the aid of the produce of the reused sherry casket. During “The Melt”, which unfortunately seems to take a circuitous route to arrive at light jazz, many ideas for lyrics for I Am Robot and Proud’s album spring to mind. Want an example? Here’s an example. The rhythms of Donald “I Did It My Way” Rumsfeld’s unintentional poetry:

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we know.

We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,

The ones we don't know

We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Ah, such danger, bossy naïveté, certainty, such power -- the interpretive skills of a General gained in the course of a life well abused. The lines are a boast, a kiss-off embodying all the machismo a man can muster about the mistakes he’ll never admit to making on the way from here to everywhere. But at least it’s a voice.

In the bar, on the occasion of the next night, the old man who muttered is near the window reading some fresh columnist in The New York Times. We both agree our choices didn’t go down too well. He tells me he thinks that Harry Connick shouldn’t try and “do” Frank. I tell him I think the futuristic guy will do better than the one I played, but I don’t ask if he’s heard of Yellow Magic Orchestra. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” comes on the piped muzak and we both laugh and join in on the line “Well, tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of me…".


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