So a few bright sparks, then. But plenty of crossed wires too...
The Groovebox might sound like some dreadful subterranean trance club in Swindon, but actually it’s a portable synthesiser which unites the sonic palettes of great sound machines past and present, including Roland‘s legendary 606 and 808 drum machines and 303 acid bassline generator. Although generally employed in dance music, this compilation documents what happens when feted lo-fi and post-rock types attempt to compose tracks using a Groovebox and little else.
Inevitably, artists with at least one foot already planted in beatbox retro-tronica conjure up some of the most comfortable and complete-sounding tunes. Beck, for example, slips instantly into ultra-spare electro mode for the slicked-back skeletal groove of ‘Boyz’ while Air glide effortlessly through the twinkling, hymnal upper stratosphere of ‘Planet Vega’. Meanwhile Tortoise‘s John McEntire seems bent on recreating the chunky shimmer of Jean-Michel Jarre‘s ‘Oxygene’ with his own mildly engaging throbfest ‘JIHAD’ and Cibo Matto opt for a lounge-jazz sketch whose most interesting feature is its droll title: ‘We Love Our Lawyers’.
Elsewhere, more alternative luminaries conform pretty much to type: Sonic Youth contribute two minutes of arty hiss and crackle in ‘Campfire’ while Money Mark strips down ‘Insects Are All Around Us’ into a raw, bare-bones shuffle. So far, so predictable. More pleasantly surprising is Pavement‘s sloppy, post-Daisy Age rap lollop ‘Robyn Turns 26’ and Buffalo Daughter‘s playful acid excursion, helpfully titled ‘303 + 606 = ACID’.
In general, the most satisfying tracks are those by the least expected, non-hipster names. Like veteran French easy-tronic composer Jean Jaques Perrey or Gershon Kingsley, who assembles a manicured ambient remake of Hot Butter‘s 1972 proto-disco synth-pop chart smash ‘Popcorn’.
But it is lo-fi troubadour Will Oldham who steals everyone’s thunder with the skeletal pulse and spectral sighs of ‘Today I Started Celebrating Again’, an eerie lament which raises the emotional ante beyond the reach of most of the junk-shop jokers and low-rent dilettantes here. You wouldn’t want to share a desert island with him, but he sure knows how to coax ghosts from the machine.
So a few bright sparks, then. But plenty of crossed wires too.