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Whoever coined the term “IDM” gave the genre a bad name right from the get-go. Even more than the many other hyperspecialized groupings with which obsessives try to define beat-driven, electronics-based sounds, the moniker is just dripping with snobbery. And its three little letters encapsulate an almost impossible ideal: intelligent dance music. Sounds like something you wouldn’t want to dance to.
Or couldn’t. The more successful nerds of the IDM world—Mouse on Mars, say, or Autechre—have managed to release album after album of tracks so damaged by their cannibalized beats that anyone hoping to get her simple-minded groove on to them would surely be thought right off the dance floor. But for the most part, the genre has gotten, if not exactly dumbed-down, then at least more accessible: Glitches, cuts, and clicks are, like, so five years ago. As IDM has continued to climb out of its purveyors’ home studios, it’s become more common to hear vocals and other tuneful inflections.
Lali Puna emerged early. The Munich, Germany–based band started as a four-track time-killer for vocalist/driving force Valerie Trebeljahr in 1998. She soon added another member—Markus Acher of IDM deviants the Notwist—and eventually had enough success with Lali Puna to warrant upgrading it to a bona fide studio-recording, van-touring quartet. But though the band left home some time ago, it has only recently begun to sound like it.
On the new Faking the Books, Lali Puna continues the ill-advised experiment with rock music that first reared its leathery head on last year’s Left Handed EP. Gone are the skips, synths, and headphone-savvy of basement-smart, lo-fi efforts such as 1999’s Tridecoder and 2001’s Scary World Theory. In their place are real-sounding drums, obtrusive guitars, and an awkward swagger. “Call 1-800-FEAR” and “B-Movie,” for example, are straight-up rock songs complete with the occasional Karen O–style vocal delivery and big, live beats. The problem is they just don’t rock that much: Trebeljahr & Co. may not be dancing anymore, but they still sound too smart for their chosen style.
Not that Lali Puna has completely abandoned electronics: The title track contains some hints of the band’s laptop past—a quietly skipping vocal line here, an analog keyboard line there. And “Small Things” has some glitch to it, thanks mostly to what sounds like a phased hand drum. Indeed, Faking’s highlights—“People I Know” and “Alienation”—are the songs that do the least to advance the Lali Puna aesthetic, with full-on electronic beats and repetitive melodies that sound as if they’re there merely to hang the bleeps, bloops, and burbles on.
The only distractions on these two tracks are the guitars, which even in these relatively subdued settings sound somewhat out of place. You can’t blame a band for evolving, of course, especially one that works within the stringent, no-fun confines of IDM. And Lali Puna has always been a fence-sitter: Tridecoder and Scary World both relied on pop-song structures as much as dance-music ones. The trouble with Faking the Books is that it leans too far in the direction of the former while inadvertently reaffirming a lesson of the latter: A little bit of bombast goes a long way.
Whereas Lali Puna’s latest is simply overrocked, Múm’s is intolerably overwrought. When we last saw the heralded Icelanders, they were still a quartet; Gyda Valtysdóttir hadn’t yet departed to become a classical cellist. The band’s 2002 LP, Finally We Are No One, was a mixed affair, showcasing its
members’ ability to write genius electronic-pop songs but also revealing a tendency toward lengthy, please-make-a-point tunes that makes a lot of sense in light of a later project: scoring Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
In what can only have been an attempt to have every Tape Op–reading knob-twiddler from Albania to Zimbabwe cream their jeans, Múm pointed itself far away from IDM’s home-recording norm for its latest, Summer Make Good. Sort of: The now-trio recorded its latest at an abandoned weather station and light-keeper’s house in the southwestern part of its native country. As one might guess, after seven-plus weeks of virtual isolation, the band turned in an album that is absolutely impenetrable.
The lushly recorded, beautifully produced tracks are hard to tell apart—if not completely alike—and, as the press kit so kindly points out, “cinematic”—to a fault. In fact, Make Good meanders from its opener, “Hú Hviss—a Ship” (wind, waves, and some other maritime noises) to its finish, “Abandoned Ship Bells” (ditto) without so much as a tempo change. And though Múm tries to throw its more ADD-prone listeners a bone by including the occasional skipping blip (“Sing Me out the Window”) or unexpected sample (“Stir”), these moments are so few and far between that listening to the record becomes a scavenger hunt for interesting parts.
And then there are the vocals. When she was teamed with her twin sister, Gyda, Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir was able to make her virginally high-pitched, wispy singing sound genuinely haunting. And the jailbait creepiness went right along with the not-twee-but-still-really-kiddie vibe that Múm favored on No One and its debut long-player, 2000’s Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is OK. Left on its own—not only sans vibe and sans sister, but also without any real songs—Kristín’s voice is naked in the worst way. Worse, it pops sheepishly, almost randomly, in and out of Make Good’s 12 songs, conjuring images of Valtysdóttir & Co. letting their recording equipment run while they wonder what to do next.
Indeed: No one yet knows how or when IDM will finally die, a victim of its own restrictions. But for both Múm and Lali Puna, it can’t be soon enough.CP