- Dolls & Dreams
- Cutting Class
- What You Want
- Plug Nickel
- Designing Women
- Family Dollar
- Is That Money
- Empty Nest
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of ExitMusic Recordings, Mikel Rouse is releasing two new discs. It might make sense to talk about these two discs (Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1) together since they share some connective tissues except the exteriors of the discs are so drastically different it can be hard to believe that one man is the creative voice behind both.
Recess is a dense and mesmerizing collage of disperate sonic elements elegantly tied together by Mikel Rouse’s signature vocal style, harmonies, and metrical/temporal play. Where Gravity Radio‘s aesthetic was closely aligned with a “radio-friendly” sound, Recess drifts back across the complexity spectrum adding layers of audio collage and found sounds on top of the immediately understandable grooves and hooks. The iPod experience with this album plays on the blend of the ambient recorded sounds with your own environment and often I had to question whether what I heard was “live or Memorex.” The sonic space of the album is huge and I think frequent iPod listening would be a mistake. This album sounds BIG and the production level of the disc is a technological and artistic marvel (a marvel which is not properly communicated as mp3s). Recess is such an immersive experience that I have a hard time doing anything else but listen when it is on.
The disc begins with what sounds like a cash register scanning an item and this ubiquitous bleep from our society quickly morphs into a rapid-fire texture. It is as if the disc takes me sonically backwards to its purchase and then distorts and expands the sounds until the relaxed groove of “Dolls & Dreams” starts up, making this a delicious 21st century updating to Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Since this album and Corner Loading Vol. 1 were recorded between October 2008 and November 2009 one would expect the topic of finance, wealth, economics, and retirement to be on the front burner.
Everything you want and have come to expect from Mikel Rouse is there in Recess. Sophisticated and nuanced textures and grooves are the DNA of this record. Poignant lyrics and spoken text elements are also in play. Recess might be quoted less as Facebook status updates as Gravity Radio but there is a lot to be said for these lyrics which are consistent in their truth and profundity. Rouse’s word play in “Cutting Class” is especially present with the lines “Being old is like being young, but not as young today” and the inverse “Being young is like being old, but not as old today.” “Failure” contains lyrical gems such as “You make me believe that the problem is me and not you,” and “I wake up every morning/Cheating death most of the time.” The sentiment of “Courage just got laid” in the final track helps close the disc in a lighter, brighter place than where we began.
This album’s density is one of its most mesmerizing features. Where Gravity Radio and International Cloud Atlas were certainly thick it is safe to say that Recess ramps things up a notch further. The spoken elements often found in Rouse’s works are woven more directly into the musical fabric instead of being used as focal or relief elements. Rouse fragments speech and transforms it into musical motives similar to Reich’s Different Trains except the adoption and transformation of these spoken elements happens at turbo speed. Mundane phrases such as “I like the bread, the bread likes you” become earworms of the highest degree. The number of times I’ve woken up with that specific phrase running through my head cannot be counted.
The thick layers of the album are carefully managed. Songs have their own life and growth and tracks play well off of each other. If you are overwhelmed by the first few tracks of the album, Rouse relaxes the tensions with “Plug Nickel” and its quirky three-bar phrase verses and metrical modulation chorus; a good tune that is the kind of thing I wish was on commercial radio more frequently. After the soundscape “Family Dollar,” “Coward” begins with a mellow, spacey choral sound reminiscent of “Soul Train” from Dennis Cleveland. Once the title emerges in the lyrics in a pseudo sing-song name-calling manner, Rouse hits us with the line “Everyone’s a coward until they get around to it.” Couple that with the chant “Everybody’s waiting around” and you’ve pretty much described the human condition.
Cyclic elements are also threaded through the disc. “Empty Nest” launches off the lyric “We end up where we started” and brings back a groove reminiscent of the “Dolls & Dreams.” The connections from beginning to end are not necessarily as strong as those found in Gravity Radio which makes Recess more of a linear sonic journey than a rounded whole. The entire album works well as a single composed event but there are ample opportunities to drop in and pick up different subsections of the work as well as songs that lift out independently.
The album is being released on December 7 but you can get at it now via Bandcamp.