Lali Puna, Scary World Theory

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Morr Music
Released: 2001

Electronic music needs more vocals.  There, I've said it.  Like other "serious musics" before it (jazz especially), the IDM or ELM world likes to see itself above such superficial things as vocalists and all the attendant baggage that comes with people who sing.  Sure, there are plenty of vocalists in electronic music--on commercial acts like Depeche Mode, Moby, and The Prodigy.  Those bands might be labeled "electronic" by record companies and radio stations, but they have way more in common with 'Nsync and Michael Jackson than they do with Autechre and Pan Sonic.  Many serious electronic music fans scoff at vocals as being a product of commercial music and an element that takes attention away from the music itself.

And they're right--to a certain extent.  Vocals usually don't fit with the complex weirdness of much electronic music.  Could you imagine Tracy Thorn singing over an Autechre track?  Well, it could happen--if Thorn's vocals were cut up and spread over the track like just another element of the sonic soup (a trick Autechre tried--not with Thorn, but another vocalist--on a track from ep7).  A straightforward vocal track would not work with Autechre's digital cut-ups.  Autechre would have to redefine its own sound to placate a vocalist.  The end result of this kind of fusion would be interesting, certainly, but it wouldn't be Autechre.

But not all electronic music is as complex and/or as weird as Confield, and if Björk has taught us anything, it's that vocals and experimental beats and melodies can blend together nicely.  What Björk manages to accomplish in her music is to transform her voice and her words into elements of the music itself.  Her screams, her odd pronunciations, her ability to reshape a word so that it sounds different each time she sings it, are vocal techniques that are entirely consistent with the ways electronic music attempts to reshape and redefine sounds.

So here's Lali Puna's Scary World Theory, featuring vocalist Valerie Trebeljahr singing songs about god knows what in a rather monotone, continental torch song style with a pretty familiar Morr Music-style sound backing her up.  The songs, which have names like "Bi-Pet" and "Nin-Com-Pop," are simple songs with enough interesting rhythms, funky melodies, and curious glitches to please electronic music fans (even those "serious" ones); moreover, the vocals and the very user-friendly song structures would also please fans of Bjork, the more recent Everything but the Girl, and even Radiohead.  In short, this is the rarest of breeds: music that is both accessible and intelligent.

So, why does this disk work?  Perhaps it's the label.  Morr Music is the perfect place for a cross between experimental electronic music and traditional vocal music, since most Morr artists rely on traditional song structures and even employ traditional melodies and rhythms.  Of course, I'm using the word "traditional" loosely here; there's no way ISAN or Phonem could be mistaken for Celine Dion.  However, the Morr sound is far more subdued in its experiments than, say, Force Inc., so adding vocals to the Morr mix is a no-brainer.

Or perhaps it's Trebeljahr's voice, which is, well, weird.  She's the opposite of Björk, really.  Her delivery is as flat as a table; she reminds me of the vocalist for the Flying Lizards, the new wave band that covered the song "Money" back in the 1980s.  It's the kind of delivery that is so understated, so unusual, that it should simply be annoying.  But it isn't.  It's actually compelling, even a little fascinating, to hear this voice singing this flatly over music this catchy, this clever, and this sharp.  The voice is a perfect fit for the music, since it does not seek to overwhelm the sound but, rather, to become part of that sound.  In fact, the voice catches your attention just enough to turn your ears toward the music, riveting your attention on details that would not otherwise stand out, and thereby heightening your appreciation of each song.  Moreover, the voice, although pretty consistently monotone, does change shape from song to song.  While the first track, "Nin-Com-Pop," sets the vocals out in front, other songs, like "Don't Think," put the vocals in the background, as a whisper that sounds just like a tiny closed hi-hat sound. Likewise, in "Come On Home," the voice splits: one part narration (like spoken word poetry, only less annoying) and another part a digitally cut-up vocal repeated over and over, like an extra rhythm.  The album is filled with interesting moments like that, moments that make you wonder exactly why electronic musicians don't make more use of the voice.

I don't have any idea who Lali Puna is.  Frankly, that's not important.  Good music is good music, period.  This is very good music, a wonderful combination of pop songs and electronic beats.  After months of boring disks from Morr Music, it's good to see a work like this, so refreshingly unpretentious and full of energy, come out of the best label on the planet.

Morr Music

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