Shinju Gumi is a thirtysomething French composer and producer (a.k.a. Frédéric Paul) whose recent forays into the world of trip-hop and downtempo beats have a curiously nostalgic and ill-defined feel. His sound is not for dancing (of course), but it does sound like a nice backdrop to a half-scripted plot pitched to a half-cocked Hollywood bigwig vacationing on Venus. His sound is mellow, strange, and quite likable, but because he's scoring other imaginary scripts, he's necessarily anonymous. Mixing a Ghost, Gumi's first full-length release on these shores, demonstrates his talents for tripping up and smoothing out the schlocky strings, beeping synthesizers, and plunking stand-up bass of countless Morricone, Moroder, or Delerue soundtracks. Six of the ten tracks feature pals and compatriots such as Kid Loco, Tarwater, and Solex ghosting the mix, though Monsieur Gumi is always floating in there somewhere.
The opening track, "Spyworm", does not leave you guessing about Gumi's influences. Muzak violins soar in the distance, while a repetitive and mildly sinister flute chorus puts us in the mood of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. This is all hooked by a repeating piano refrain that evokes every ski-mask diamond heist you've ever seen on film. The forward momentum is provided by a something that sounds like a harpsichord, which consumes the song's finale with a rumbling volume and intensity that will set the plaster falling on your head.
Three other tracks on the album -- "Hide and Seek", "Blindwhisper", and "Homesick" -- cover the same suspense-and-drama territory. Put on "Hide and Seek" while strolling into the kitchen to feed your cat, and you will suddenly feel like Peter Graves frowning around corners with a pistol cocked in your hand. Gumi's unique talent is his ability to create seemingly innocuous background music that transforms your every movement into a plot development. Also, on all of these unremixed solo-Gumi tracks, there is an alarming tendency for real-time analog instruments -- pianos, drums, stand-up basses -- to dominate the mix, and their presence is like a reassuring human hand on your digital shoulder.
The remaining tracks, all remixes, tend to remove Gumi's passion for soundtrack music and replace it with the aesthetic priorities of the mixer. But Gumi's ghost remains in the sinister and action-packed drama that underscores every track. The 7-Hurtz remix of "Beyond Hypothermia", for example, continues to live up to its title with the frigid shivering of synthesizer samples up on top, and what sounds like a xylophone made of icicles tinkling throughout. Gumi appears at the song's end in the guise of some muffled strings -- sounding as if they were recorded with earmuffs on -- that warm the cockles of your heart.
The Belleville meditation blues mix of "Innerscar", by Kid Loco, is the only song here that seems more influenced by Isaac Hayes than by Ennio Morricone -- by this I mean it is the only song that one could conceivably dance to. The beat is mildly funky, the piano forcibly mellow, and there's even an organ that seems to have got lost on the way to a 1972 house party. Quite fun, and it seems clear that Kid Loco (who has previously funked up the highbrow pretensions of Saint Etienne, Stereolab, and Mogwai) finds Gumi's ghost to be in need of some rhythm.
Tarwater remixes "Dust of Dawn" with an absorbing sonic cornucopia that includes a submarine sonar, junebugs buzzing in summer trees, and tugboat captains sending semaphore signals. It's a mass of strange beauty, and it floats past you for a brief three minutes until you arrive at the Fade to White remix of "Fade to Black" by Farr a.k.a. Calm, the dullest track on the album. I'm not sure what to make of it, except that maybe Farr a.k.a. Calm took the soundtrack aesthetic a bit too seriously. The amorphous tinkly piano and sleepy beats of "Fade to Black" sound mostly like the backdrop to Vangelis napping in a hammock.
The two remaining remixes are the weirdest. The Indopepsychics remix of "Darkstar" is an ultra-minimalist sonic landscape, filled with subtle peeps, grunts, scratches, and squawks (and also what sounds like a hammer and a helicopter). Here, we are in the land of Autechre, one step above silence but engaging nonetheless. If you filmed yourself sneaking around Lando Calrissian's Cloud City, "Darkstar" would be your sonic backdrop.
On the other hand the Solex remix of "Spyworm" (retitled "Señor Gumi") is the most playful tune on the album. Whereas "Spyworm" is soundtrack music recontextualized for all of us bedsit music-appreciation electronica types, "Señor Gumi" runs it through the goofy meter by tricking up the drums a bit, and adding some jocular humming and whistling. It's a breath of relief on an album that might otherwise be taken too seriously.
Mixing a Ghost is a cohesive and mildly engaging soundtrack album for which no film has yet been made. Contrived drama and suspense can often be annoying in a musical context, but Shinju Gumi knows how to straddle that line between phoniness and sincerity. As an exploration of a unique micro-aesthetic in the electronica world, Mixing a Ghost is diverting and fun.