TG Mauss is dedicated to recreating the innocence and simplicity of childhood through his music. On the face of it this is hardly an unusual preoccupation — musicians have always been attracted to the notion of childhood, either as an idyllic, receding memory of tranquility or the more complicated, conflicted notion of innocence lost. However, creating art on the subject of childhood is also fraught with peril, not the least of which is the hazard of allowing sentiment to cloud reminiscence. Within living memory both Charles Schulz and Brian Wilson were able to use childhood and early adolescence as a canvas for great art, using innocence as a gauzy mask to cover some deeply troubled existentialist inquiry.
Mauss, one half of the electro duo Tonetraeger, operates with a minimum of elaboration. The compositions on Mechanical Eye are uniformly sparse, almost simplistic, and many carry themselves with the exaggerated rusticity of latter-day folk songs. That Mechanical Eye is a predominantly electronic album is a fact that manages to draw as little attention as possible. With the exception of a couple songs (“Mechanical Eye” and “Pacific”), the electronic elements could almost be invisible. But they do add an extra texture — the shuffling of sampled guitar chords and looped marimbas create a mellow, hypnotic vibe that would be strangely disassociated in human hands. Mauss uses computers to effect an almost primal type of intimacy.
The problem is that much of the album is so preoccupied with the notion of innocence as to render itself inert. Many interesting ideas never seem to gain the traction necessary to develop past brief sketches. “Wood and Flowers” is blissfully precious, but it once it establishes the tentative guitar, haunting melodica and marimba rhythm, offset against the recurring sample of placid rushing water, it fails to register as more than a trifle. There are a lot of good elements, but the overall effect is somewhat less than compelling.
A track like “Bay Shore” does a good job of encapsulating everything good and bad about Mauss’ approach. The track itself sounds great, with softly muted guitar melodies over sparse piano and very faint electronic touches. But the melodies themselves never coalesce into anything more than gestures, albeit gorgeous gestures. The soft-focus, slightly ramshackle vibe contributes to a sensation of whimsy that threatens to choke the proceedings altogether. Whimsy, when allowed to run free, can produce startlingly turgid art.
So while there is a lot to like about Mechanical Eye, it falls short in creating something totally immersive. Although well-crafted, something else very important is missing. Childhood is more than merely an ascetic experience, and despite his ear for whimsy the overall effect is strangely vitiated.