Anything with Dan “The Automater” Nakamura’s name attached to it is going to have a certain comic eccentricity about it, as evidenced by Gorillaz, Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and just about everything else that he’s been a part of. His latest, Lovage, is ostensibly an album of sexy “quiet storm” jams — “music to make love to your old lady by” — from his Handsome Boy persona, Nathaniel Merriweather. But is it sexy, really, or all just a big joke? It’s hard to say, as the entire album continually walks that line between the serious and the absurd.
On the surface, Lovage spoofs the “music for lovers” genre, with cover art that puts pseudo-French captions with New Age nature photography and a goofy photo of Nakamura smoking a cigarette next to a gun and some roses. The guest stars are called “well known sexperts”, and there’s a definition of “lovage” that describes it as a flatulence-reducing, abdominal pain-relieving herb. Yet the music, for the most part, plays fairly seriously.
It’s an album of stylish, funky, dreamy trip-pop, with hip-hop allusions here and there and a slightly cartoonish side. The two featured vocalists are Jennifer Charles (Elysian Fields) and Mike Patton (Mr Bungle, Faith No More). She croons in a sultry, pretty voice while he either growls or sings with a dramatic, art-rock lilt that’s somewhere between Nick Cave and that guy from Queensryche. The odd balance (and, particularly, the fact that Patton’s vocal style is too wild for your average slow jam) is the main thing that gives the album the air of a spoof, though the lyrics are a close second. It’s hard to take things like “I turned you on like eletric company”, or “You are the griddle, I am the meat” very seriously.
On the musical side, the album isn’t in-your-face innovative, yet quietly pushes around different territory. The focus is on Portishead-ish funky-but-mellow pop, yet Nakamura throws in all sorts of unexpected styles and samples. With an array of movie references, from Airplane to James Bond, Lovage uses pop culture to put forth a portrait of seduction, a look at the fantasies that surround romantic relationships.
While most of The Automater’s efforts seem to involve a large cast of musicians, Lovage showcases the talents of a relative few. The guest “sexperts” — Prince Paul, Damon Albarn of Blur, Afrika Bambaataa and Maseo of De La Soul — offer mostly a few spoken lines, either song introductions or (in the case of Bambaataa and Maseo) quick opinions on hygiene and the wearing of socks. The album seems mostly like a collaboration between Nakamura, Charles and Patton, with some attention-getting help from Kid Koala, who adds a spark of hip-hop flavor to the mix on a couple tracks, with his fast-scratching and creative musical choices.
Lovage isn’t a cohesive concept album as much as it’s a half-joking, half-serious stab at romantic mood music. While what “sexy” means no doubt varies from person to person, it’s hard to imagine that most people will find the album as a whole to be music for love-making. Still, it isn’t a complete joke either — there’s plenty of moments where the vibe steams up more than you might expect.