Music

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
Website
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

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…".

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image