My first encounter with Seksu Roba came here in my (and its) hometown, Los Angeles, at one of those smugly untalented, underground performance art/rock 'n' roll shows. You know the kind -- where shitty bands, electronic musicians and self-proclaimed avant-garde "artists" all get together in some divey venue in a sketchy part of town to put on sloppy performances for their friends, who stand around drinking beer and talking loudly through everything but come up to every performer afterward to slap them on the back and tell them how they great they are, which the performers all apparently believe, because these shitty little shows keep happening and you keep seeing the same tired, half-assed bands and performance artists trotting out their shtick. There's a reason most of the underground stays underground.
The evening's lone highlight was a slender, intense-looking Asian dude who came on and played a kitschy yet undeniably gorgeous set of tunes on a theremin, accompanied by some simple, pre-recorded electronic tracks. A theremin, for all you non-electronica geeks, is an obscure breed of synthesizer that's played by waving one's hands over it, which produces an eerie, quavering note that instantly calls to mind visions of campy '60s sci-fi B-movies. It's fun to watch someone play it, but generally not fun to listen to -- or at least that's what I always thought, but this guy was amazing, coaxing celestial sounds out of thin air like he was plucking some kind of cosmic electro-harp.
The guy, it turned out, was Sukho Lee, one half of Seksu Roba. After the performance, he gave us a sampler CD from his label, Eenie Meenie Records, which featured two Seksu tracks. The first one, "Intersexual Overdrive", was amazing, a swirling, cosmic head-trip of chugging synths and Wizard of Oz samples that made me wish I owned a spaceship just so I crank this tune as my takeoff music. The second track, "The Telephone", was less than amazing, all kitschy robot electro and a female voice with a Japanese accent saying stuff like, "The line is dead / Your phone is broken / I can't hear anything / I'm waiting for you to call". All meant to be very tongue-in-cheek, I'm sure, but the effect was uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the shittier acts from that night I first heard Sukho Lee play his theremin, like the guys who said they were going to play an old Russian folk song and then launched into a clumsy punk version of "If You're Happy and You Know It". It's cleverness without wit, and yes, I know that's an oxymoron, and I wish more folks knew it, too.
So, all you realy need to know about Seksu Roba's sophomore album, Pleasure Vibrations, is that it includes "The Telephone" and omits "Intersexual Overdrive". The problem is that Sukho Lee, who's obviously quite talented, is only one half of Seksu; the other half is Lun*na Menoh, who's obviously not. As the annoying voice on "Telephone" and most of Pleasure Vibrations' other 13 tracks, Menoh is a major drag on the album's entertainingly sleazy, space-age vibe. She tends to enunciate her simple lyrics with a wooden lack of wit and seductiveness that only extreme ironists could possibly appreciate. Judging from the duo's press photos, she's quite easy on the eyes, so maybe her shtick works better in a live setting, but on disc, it's deadly.
To be fair, Menoh can actually sing; she does some nice chanteuse scatting on "Afternoon Rendezvous", adding to the song's louche Mancini-meets-Esquivel charm, and her little-girl croon is a pleasant, if slightly off-key, presence on the bouncy electro-jazz of "Fantasy", a track that would make Herbie Hancock smile. She even warbles in Spanish pretty convincingly on "Labios Dulces". More often, however, she prefers to strike verbal poses like some kind of Japanese Laurie Anderson, except with about one-tenth as much depth: "Hesitation", "LA Freeway", "The Night Is Mine", "The Flesh Is Weak", and the aforementioned "The Telephone" all feature her deadpan delivery of banalities like, "Eyes on the road / Hands on the wheel / I don't care where we go" (off "LA Freeway"), or cornball poetry like, "Close the curtains / Open the mind" (off "The Flesh Is Weak"). It's too bad, because many of these tracks otherwise have some cool stuff going on in them, especially the electro epic "LA Freeway", which will get stuck in your head for days.
Apart from "Afternoon Rendezvous" and the jazzy synth samba "Erotico", on which Menoh's breathily whispered commentary ("Everything is erotic") is less obtrusive, the tracks that work best on Pleasure Vibrations are the instrumentals. "Heavenly Bodies" hums along on a '70s Kraut rock bed of buzzing synth basses and hand claps, and both "Moon Song" (a cover of an old '50s pop standard) and "Improvisation for 5 Theremins" shine with the endlessly fascinating, lilting harmonics of Lee's Theremin, which doesn't appear anywhere near enough on the rest of the album (barely at all, in fact). The highlight is a stunning instrumental cover of "Up, Up and Away", which uses a stately tempo and Moroderesque synths to transform the Fifth Dimension's old chestnut into a soaring space age epic. A cameo by that groovy theremin helps, too.
I was hesitant in reviewing this album to say anything overtly negative about it, because I hate to harsh on local music -- partially because struggling local bands have it hard enough without suffering snarky reviews from the likes of me, and partially because of my fear that their angry fans will pelt me with withering glances and possibly even empty bottles of Red Stripe. But nothing frustrates me more than seeing a talented artist squandering his talent, and Sukho Lee obviously has a lot more going for him than Pleasure Vibrations reveals. He needs to either reign Lun*na Menoh in or lose her altogether, and drop the retro-futurist/spoken word kitsch from the Seksu Roba sound, because the whole hipster irony thing is just hopelessly played out. Seksu Roba's best moments, like "Intersexual Overdrive" and that very straight-faced "Up, Up and Away" cover, are hip but 100% irony-free. The rest is just fodder for the underground.