Dummy 2021
Photo: Courtesy of Riot Act Media

Dummy’s ‘Mandatory Enjoyment’ Is the Best Krautpop Album of the Year

Dummy’s full-length debut Mandatory Enjoyment percolates with a mesmerizing, inescapable warmth—the best of its Krautpop niche this year.

Mandatory Enjoyment
Dummy
Trouble in Mind
22 October 2021

Every year there is one great album from a modern-day krautrock advocate. These artists experiment with the motorik pulse, slow-moving harmony, spluttering loops, and thick walls of Moog synthesizers and Farfisa organs, elements that were propagated in the 1970s by West German groups such as Neu!, Can, and Cluster. 

In 2020, the album of this ilk that stood out was Agitprop Alterna by Peel Dream Magazine, the bedroom project of Brooklynite and Anglophile Joe Stevens. Agitprop was a perfect, shoegazing mixture of the above ingredients, awash with fizzing synths and chunky pedal point guitar work—a tribute to DJ John Peel’s favorite bands and the motorik forefathers. 

This year, that album is Dummy’s Mandatory Enjoyment. Ambient melodicism and erudite lyrics about late capitalism, humanity’s abuse of the Earth, and maintaining ardor when surrounded by plastic homogeneity coalesce into a package of immersive noise pop. The music bucks the solemn lyrical agenda and defaults to a major key, exuding warmth and brightness in line with the colorful album cover. When we talk about avant-garde music, it’s natural to picture the dark and inaccessible. But that’s not so with Dummy, hence krautpop. “Punk Product #4”, for example, is a propulsive fuzzscape à la Mars Audiac Quintet-era Stereolab. Over the blast of bouncy, smiley-faced energy, co-vocalist Emma Maatman lilts about her “years spent mining the obscure” before asking what it’s worth: “A couple hundred bucks a week.” 

Although most write-ups of Dummy—mine included—liberally namedrop their influences, they are far from a pastiche. Their music incorporates many surprising touchstones, among them French bossa nova group Antena and Japanese genre-hopping multi-instrumentalist Haruomi Hosono. The dual female/male vocals of Maatman and Nathan O’Dell set the group apart from their contemporaries. 

“Daffodils” is the song that best showcases the beauty of their overlapping voices. They converse with one another, disparaging social media Influencers who hold nothing sacred: “Never mind the changing times / Just ignore the signs…They will crush the flowers.” The duo reference an actual event in which a field of poppies was destroyed by hoards of iPhone-happy phonies posing for pics. But the analogy gets at something bigger—humanity’s trampling of the Earth and the value of looks over substance. 

Dummy’s vocals are nearly always subordinate to the instrumentation, however. “Unremarkable Wilderness” is a wordless soundscape with artificial bird sounds (created by self-oscillating filters). “Final Weapon” opens with a drugged-up, frantic drum loop over which there are bubbling bleeps and bloops. And “H.V.A.C.” is a dissonant but ebullient piece led by a jagged synth line. Even the song titles—”Atonal Poem”, “Tapestry Distortion”, “X-Static Blanket”—seem to describe the sound of the music more than the lyrics. 

Guitarist Joe Trainor confirms in an interview with Guitar.com that the group are “trying to make a huge amount of sound”. He says, “Having some sort of droning element the whole time just feels natural and intuitive to us.” This drone element—again, favored by Peel Dream Magazine, Broadcast, and Stereolab—is key to Dummy’s sound. It means that although Dummy incorporate pop elements, unlike a pop song there isn’t a build towards a chorus. Rather, you enter the song, and it envelops you, like stepping off a city bus into a cacophony of heat and sound: the comfort, or ecstasy, of unrelenting movement. 

Dummy bring out mallet instruments on “Atonal Poem”, a lengthy three-part farewell that, rather than despairing at the world, meditates on its divinity. I half-expected Nico to murmur over the tambourine/kick drum rhythm and clean guitar plucks. Instead, vibraphones and marimbas arpeggiate the chord and everything builds to a harmonic plateau whereupon the guitar drone returns one last time. Mandatory Enjoyment may not break new ground, but if someone doesn’t continue to traverse this ground, there’s a danger of it sealing over. And that would be an unconscionable loss for avant-garde and pop music alike, especially when acts such as Dummy unify the two with such adroitness. 

RATING 8 / 10
PopMatters