Crate-Digging: Various Artists – At Home with the Groovebox

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Grand Royal, 1999)

Concept compilations can be hit and miss – heck, compilations in general are often mixed bags, with one or two highlights among the b-side detritus and studio outtakes. Things get a little more interesting when an idea sparks musicians into action; an exciting theme can unify even the most stubborn or hermetic musicians into collaboration, like a cover record or a holiday endeavor. But when you call up your famous musician pals and propose an album of brand new material using only a new instrumental toy, as Grand Royal owners The Beastie Boys did here with the groovebox, you gotta think the adventurous will run with it. And for the most part they did.

Um, groovebox? Right, I had no idea what it was either. Let’s take a peek at the allmusic.com page for this album, shall we? “The Groovebox combines three classic synthesizers from the 1980s (the 808 and 909 drum machines and the 303 bass machine) as well as a sampler of new and old sounds. Tannis Root developed the machine and has used Grand Royal’s stable of artists (and then some) to compose a piece each, demonstrating the versatility of this retro instrument.”

For me, the purchase of this album became a no-brainer when I discovered the inclusion of an exclusive Pavement song on the tracklist. “Robyn Turns 26,” which does not show up on any of the band’s reissued discography so far, is amazing. And ridiculous. It is worth the price. What’s funny is that the track doesn’t even sound like Pavement – Malkmus delivers lyrics in a faux-rap, and has a female vocalist as a foil, as opposed to Bob Nastanovich. And of course, in typical Malkmusian fashion, the lyrics are great – he rhymes “trustafarians” with “sega and atarians” and the song ends with something about a 20 pack of camels and a 6 pack makes 26 friends which is what your age is. Wow. I can’t even begin to parse the lyrical genius. Or pretentious nonsense. Either way, I like it.

The rest of At Home with the Groovebox is a hodgepodge of variable results.

Besides Pavement, the Grand Royal honchos enlisted a few heavyweights to play with their groovebox: Beck, Sonic Youth, Air, Sean Lennon, Tortoise’s John McIntyre, Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Mr. Will Oldham himself. So this really has an all-star cast, and I was intrigued by the variety. Sonic Youth phones in the most WTF track here with “Campfire,” which is essentially the groovebox spitting back the sound of hissing and popping firewood. A very Sonic Youth-ish thing to do, but a disappointment here. Air’s track sounds like a Moon Safari outtake, and a half-baked one at that. Buffalo Daughter’s “303+606=ACID” bloops glurkily over low-key percussion and not much else. And John McIntyre’s “J.I.H.A.D” resembles an instrumental Sea and Cake track played on samplers. Oh wait, it kind of is. My initial impression of this track was a good one, but it’s drifting into “meh” territory these days.

The flipside of that is Beck’s “Boyz,” which I initially dismissed as half-assed electro-vocodered nonsense. I wanted a rapping Beck, dammit! But the man knows his 1980s electro, and I can now say I’m officially behind what he’s doing here. The Grand Royal artists fare really well, too (for the most part; Buffalo Daughter is part of the GR artist stable). Money Mark’s “Insects Are All Around Us” sounds just like that, in a good way. Sean Lennon’s got a nifty microhouse thing going with “Winged Elephants”; it probably works because he decided not to muddy it up with vocals. Bis delivers “Oh My!” as you’d expect: as a candy-coated singalong albeit without their actual instruments. Cibo Mato’s “We Love Our Lawyers” is a pleasant surprise as well, as I’m not a huge fan of theirs. But they layer their groovebox composition well and turn in one of their more well-rounded songs. And what is Will Oldham doing on here? And why is his song one of the best of the bunch? The curveball: the weird folkie on what is essentially – let’s admit it – an electro throwback album, whips a simple synth trill/minimal beat together for him to croon over – pure understated genius.

The set also features three synthesizer-composition innovators who pushed their genre’s boundaries in the 1970s, and again, the results vary. Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn” is the best of the bunch, and stylistically fits in flawlessly following Sean Lennon. I don’t know what to make of Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “The Groovey Leprechauns.” It’s a slab of weird acid-jazz-funk from France which, if I knew anything about Perrey would probably not be surprising. Sample upon sample flits in and out of the mix – do not listen if you have ADD, it’ll only worsen it. Or maybe give you a stroke. And the unfortunately named Dick Hymen (yuck) clunks the album to a crappy halt with “Glass Slipper.” Good one, dude.

So the question is – how big of a Pavement fan are you? If you’re like me, you’ll buy this and be insanely happy. It took a bit of time for the rest of the record to sink in, but it’s an entertaining ride exploring the possibilities of a strange and archaic instrument. Even the bad tracks are worth hearing for their weirdness.

RIYL: Mantronix, Kraftwerk, Cornelius

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