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Enon: Hocus Pocus

David Antrobus


Hocus Pocus

Label: Touch and Go
US Release Date: 2003-09-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

Enon make music as gaudy and as busy as their record sleeves. Their roots are in such radically diverse sounds (Brainiac and Blonde Redhead, among others) that they must continually straddle a sonic highwire, neither toppling into streamlined pop on the one hand, nor into zany geek rock on the other (or, on a different day, mercurial synth pop and spastic garage rock). And this Brooklyn-based trio is getting better at this precarious act all the time.

John Schmersal, formerly of Ohio's Brainiac, provides the brains (ha!) and the wacky energy, not to mention voice, keys, and guitars. Toko Yasuda has brought her smooth voice, keys, and bass guitar from a stint with Blonde Redhead. Matt Schultz (formerly of the Lab Partners), meanwhile, is credited with batterie (percussion) and legerdemain (sleight of hand). Ha, funny guys, clearly.

The balance achieved on Hocus Pocus is the band's most even yet (coming as it does after 2000's frenzied, unhinged Believo! and 2002's more focused High Society). This increasingly taut and successful fusion of jerky art-punk with a prettier synth-pop sensibility can almost certainly be attributed to Yasuda's growing prominence in the band. Somehow her butter churn voice manages to sound both girlishly winsome and sensual, and it is one of the keys to Enon's unique sound.

The other, of course, is songwriting. This is an assured collection of songs, for which both Schmersal and Yasuda can take equal credit. That they alternate writing/singing duties pretty evenly throughout the record somehow doesn't distract. The former leans toward quirky anthemic pop-rock with a distinct UK feel, while the latter adopts an equally playful, more beats-oriented, electro-pop -- along the lines of Cibo Matto, or even Le Tigre. But however accurate these descriptions may be, they remain the map not the territory; the overall feel of the music is far less conscious and coldly delineated than the legend might suggest. Enon are no bandwagon-jumpers, incidentally, even if they're not the only New York area band currently paying tribute to '80s new wave. Tweaking and teasing novel sounds from synths has been Schmersal's obsession since his days with Brainiac (sadly curtailed in 1997 by the auto-accident death of frontman Tim Taylor) and Enon's current lineup appears not only supportive in this regard, but whip-crackingly enthusiastic.

A dizzyingly prolific diversity is Enon's template. Ranging from the warm electro-confectionary (not without mildly unsettling background dissonance) of Yasuda's dual-tracked vocals on opener "Shave" (played loud, I defy those goosebumps not to break out) to the Spanish guitar and "Bug in the brandy / Baby / Drunk on the candy of you", irony-free romanticism of the closing title track (which itself doesn't stay still long enough for such glib categorization, featuring as it does an incongruous magical mystery interlude as brief as it is startling), this thrift store collection is bright and tacky and fun, yet never pointlessly stupid.

"Murder Sounds", from this year's In the City EP (released back in June), is fleshed out here. Yasuda's narrative-nuanced verses overlay a tightly-melodic-yet-groove-laden post-punk bassline, while Schmersal's jagged, treated, Fred Schneider-like chorus of "She said please stay close / I'm gonna be right back" briefly intrudes, before the song blooms into an exquisitely bittersweet boy-girl dialogue ("I could be thinking of you when you are gone / 'Cept the whole damn world has just come undone") that's astonishingly beautiful in context. Schmersal rips a page (Page?) right out of the Jack White guitar-brat handbook in the opening bars to "Storm the Gates", which could have been another skewed anthemic rocker if it weren't for the intruding strains of psychedelic-era Beatles-isms that, if not quite derail, at least sidetrack it. Yasuda's voice on "Daughter in the House of Fools" is disarming, ducking and weaving with endearing dexterity between the robo-dance rhythmic thrusts and parries; trapped in a ring of confusion, eroticism, anxiety, avidity.

"Mikazuki" is a moment, midway through, of exoticism and reflection, Yasuda dripping honey in Japanese, accompanied by labelmate Nina Nastasia's viola player Dylan Willemsa on a lilting perfumed interlude.

Initially, "Candy" is exactly what you'd expect -- Schmersal's straight-ahead mellifluous vocals merging with Yasuda's bubblegum chorus ("Candy... candy...") -- until it swells surprisingly passionate and urgent, heavy with the sudden ache of love ("Each way I turn / My senses burn / I taste your kiss all over the world"). Like the earlier "Murder Sounds", the initial bobbing dance of pretty flotsam, gorgeous in itself, briefly makes way for something more substantial beneath the surface; a needier, darker, circling thing, barely glimpsed.

Everywhere you look, there's something for you. Want rhythmic, semi-glitchy dance-oriented pop? Try "Monsoon". Want melodic/angular XTC-meets-Spoon, sugar-sprinkled seizure-rock? Give "Utz" a spin. Want more straightforward indie rock? Sample "The Power of Yawning". You get the idea. This yard sale has only the good stuff. Somehow all 13 songs fit, unified in their disparity by an infectious sense of abandon and fun, but also by a counterintuitive hidden thoughtfulness -- as if someone went and draped gaudy, multi-hued scarves over something more solid and unexpectedly heartfelt.

If I had to pick a standout, it would probably be "Starcastic", in which an elastic bassline gleefully bounces Schmersal's and Yasuda's increasingly hysterical voices on its taut surface, like a trampoline juggling alarmed children. The tension between crisp precision (beats) and messy careening abandon is palpable.

But this dizzying, enchanted carpet of twisted pop songs really ought to be heard all-of-a-piece, as Enon prattle and dance -- jerky and breathless and sweet -- while managing with clumsy exuberance to weave and stitch something magical from leftover pieces of torn and impossibly garish cloth. Hocus Pocus indeed.

Simply, one of the year's best.

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