Part World War II nightmare, part experimental pop escapism, On Vacation is lo-fi Indie rock at its quirkiest and most beautiful. Listen it in any mood.
Releasing two discs is the hot thing to do right now -- one a DVD, the other the actual LP. In Low Budget, Lo-fi Indie Rock Land, however, both discs have music on them, about 20 minutes a piece. On Vacation, the second album from San Diego, CA trio The Robot Ate Me, is just such a record. Released on Swim Slowly Records, On Vacation is divided onto those two discs because the nine tracks on each are so strikingly different each other.
The first volume is a delicately nightmarish account of post-World War II life. The music consists of both samples and live instruments arranged in sometimes cheery, sometimes haunting two-minute ditties. The lyrics fall heavy-handedly over the whimsical melodies even though singer Ryland Bouchard's voice sounds as fragile as the music. With song titles like "The Genocide Ball", "Jesus and Hitler", "The Republican Army", and "I Slept Through the Holocaust", the album contrasts carefree melodies with the brutal politics of the middle 20th century.
The juxtaposition is odd, to say the least. On "The Genocide Ball", the crackly 1920's jazz samples sound warm and wholesome compared to Bouchard's lyrics: "I'll bet on Jordan, / You've got South Africa, / You never know who we'll win next". "The Republican Army" features bizarre percussion arrangements from drummer David Greenburg, along with a sinuous waltzing violin melody. All this plays underneath Bouchard's wailing question, "Why don't you join the Christian Brigade?" "Oh No! Oh My! (1994)" plays like the dark aftermath of a campaign speech, featuring rousing horns crossed with lyrics about African statistics "in the ditches".
The highlight of this first disc is "Crispy Christian Teatime", a lilting tune that sounds like it's coming from the mouth of a bratty child hosting a tea party no one wants to attend. The last lines are especially loaded:
"If you don't like my games, /
You should definitely just run away, /
Because otherwise you'll burn in flames, /
It's my world even if I'm insane."
Volume II of On Vacation sounds completely different from Volume I and takes the form of pure pop escapism. Both discs have similar song titles, but couldn't have more disparate themes. Where Volume I focuses on being stuck in horrible situations, Volume II enthusiastically supports jumping in the car and heading for the coast. Bouchard's voice sounds downright lighthearted on the title track, "Apricot Tea" and "The Red-Haired Girl". It's a welcome change for both the listener and the band, as Greenburg is allowed more rhythmic freedom and, on several tracks, creates delightful shuffling beats that, coupled with piano and keyboard, inspire images that seem nothing short of sunshine. The lyrics are much mellower as well, drifting from tea parties, to time spent at the beach. For the best in pop escapism, listen to "I'm OK", "Oh No! Oh My!" and "On Vacation". The last two are infinitely more jovial than their Volume I counterparts.
The Robot Ate Me has nothing to do with robots and its members are not forthcoming with information about their lives or the band's history. Looking for that information is pretty much pointless, and not necessary because, quite honestly, the music is plenty interesting on its own. The striking difference between the two volumes of On Vacation, together with the quality of both discs, adds up to more than forty minutes of entertainment. The musicians are all skilled and Bouchard writes a mean two-minute ditty. Listen to this record when you're depressed and feel like staying bummed (Volume I). Listen to it when you're depressed and want to feel better (Volume II). Listen two it when you're up and want to stay up (Volume II). And listen to it when you're too up and need to come down for awhile (also Volume II). On vacation serves as many purposes as it has facets.