This is the story of a house kitten who's just a wee bit batty.
"Joy is in the rhythm of the machine"
-- Miss Kittin, "Machine Joy"
"This is the story of a post-modern muse
Internationally minded, and nothing to lose."
-- Miss Kittin, "Sunset Strip"
Caroline Hervé, publicly known as Miss Kittin, is a multifaceted French-born deejay with a growing track record for cranking out smart, yet accessible dance cuts. She's a topnotch record spinner, but she built her performance pedigree as a collaborator, working with expert hipsters like Felix Da Housecat and the Hacker. With heavy, thumping beats accented by her hollowed high-end singing voice and cool detached patches of talk-rap, Miss Kittin has set a standard for glitzy electronic music.
Regardless of how we label the sound (disco punk, electroclash, house, nouveau synth-pop, what does all that stuff mean, really?), no one can accuse Miss Kittin of boxing herself into sameness and predictability. After all, this is the same artist who dramatized the snooty, high society attitude in "Frank Sinatra", a tune with the Hacker that was less a homage to Ol' Blue Eyes and more about jamming and strutting its merry way into clubs worldwide. "In limousines we have sex, everyday with my famous friends", Miss Kittin declared in her distorted, hazy voice above a cocky marching rhythm and a bass line that seemed to emanate from a giant rubber band. Then came I Com, her 2004 solo debut, which showcased the simple but cheeky brush off, "Requiem for a Hit", constructed around a single brash refrain, "I'll beat that b*tch wit' a hit" ("I'll beat, I'll beat, I'll beat, I'll beat, I'll beat that b*tch wit' a hit").
Those of us who wondered what our favorite musically-inclined feline would do next should be pleased with Batbox, Miss Kittin's 2008 collection of 13 slinky electronic tracks. The similarities to I Com are easy to see and hear, mainly the synth-coated rhythms, the airy singing, and her now-familiar nonchalant rapport. Batbox, then, picks up where I Com leaves off, jumping and pulsing like an electrocardiogram in fast-forward.
Yet, it also breaks ground for the accomplished deejay, pushing in a different direction, mainly toward a synthesis of retro and Goth. The LP's opener and lead single, "Kittin is High", sets the tone, a disco-style romp of a song, complete with a spooky synth that would be perfect for a playful Halloween party. The references to "witches" and "vampires" help out, too. The video for the song, decorated in wobbly-drawn cartoon fashion, further plays up the "bat" and "bewitching" motifs.
Her lyrical style, at times similar to free association, gives the impression that she could make songs about anything or, in cynical terms, about nothing at all. If she hadn't convinced me already (see "Requiem for a Hit" again), Batbox would have gotten me onboard. In "Metalhead", for instance, she speaks of her "head of metal" and the idea of taking a hammer to "destroy everything around". Meanwhile, "Barefoot Tonight" sports the line, "I'm ready to kick some ass…barefoot…tonight." Of course, the more optimistic view is that she's aiming for an emotional reaction beyond the literal and the straightforward.
But damn if it doesn't work, as Miss Kittin's ice-cold vocals spill lazily across the frenetic backdrops, a synthesis of syllables and sounds. When you're listening, you might get the feeling it shouldn't work as well as it does, and when you find yourself grooving to it, you might not be able to explain why. Maybe it's magic. Or, better yet, maybe it's a matter of balance. With more processing and production, the whole thing might have leaned in the direction of Madonna's Ray of Light with a touch of Music, which, by the way, isn't a bad thing, if you're fluent in Madonna. German deejay Ellen Allien would also, and probably more appropriately, come to mind. But if you go too far in the mucho-processed direction, it could turn into Gwen Stefani's The Sweet Escape, and that's just not a good look. On the other hand, a few more steps in the minimalist direction and Batbox would have been reduced to a set of loops. Balance is the key.
Regardless of what makes it work, we can at least identify the formula, which is "talk-rap over tight beats and haunting synthesizers", although nothing on the Batbox is as hi-octane as I Com's cleverly titled "Meet Sue Be She". Most of the songs follow the pattern effectively, from the bounce of the title track that would have been perfect for a 1980s breakdancing competition, to the energetic claps and dissonant guitar sounds in "Grace" and the big funky beat in "Solidasarockstar". Nevertheless, I'm enamored with the ones that offer slight departures from the norm. A great example is "Wash N Dry", an angelically light and whispery electro-ballad, devoid of pounding rhythmic elements, but still full of spunk and knob fiddling. It reminds me of "Dub About Me" from I Com, but with a softer vibe akin to another track from that album, "Happy Violentine".
Miss Kittin's singing chops once again add to the variety, not only in the aforementioned "Wash N Dry", but also in the cutesy romantic number, "Play Me a Tape". The latter is charming in its execution, like "Kiss Factory" from her last outing, but part of the charm is how relevant the subject matter is to the artist's chosen profession. Being a deejay means never having to say you're not listening. What's more, is there a better way to woo a deejay than to surprise her a carefully selected tape of tunes? Oh, the havoc the dapper and debonair Billy Dee Williams might have wreaked in his day with a customized mixtape!
My only nitpick is that Batbox plays everything a little safer than I expected, in terms of content but also song length. It could have been bigger, brasher, and bolder. But, all things considered, it still amounts to a full load of goodies and a heck of a ride.