My pre-review-writing listening habits the ways in which I
gather the sensory input crucial to transforming these shiny silver
discs into these words that flow through my fingers tend to be
varied. When I get a new record, I listen to it in different
environments while trying to think of something worth sharing about
it. Comfortable on the couch in my surround-sound-equipped living
room, remote in hand to skip from track to track and even disc to
disc, jotting down the occasional note. Groggy in the morning,
listening through the tinny speakers of the CD shower radio as
splashes of water and dollops of shampoo filter the sound waves on
their way to my ears. On headphones going to or returning from work
on the El, shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight tin can with my fellow
commuters, entering quick fragmented thoughts into my PDA. Through
the modest factory-installed stereo in my car, in the relative
freedom of the semi-open road, singing along to the choicest bits.
Late at night, as my pillow further muffles the sounds emanating from
the ancient speakers beneath my headboard their magnets and
coils and cones encased behind a screen of straw-like material
dreaming of writing the perfect review. And then, as I come to
actually begin writing in earnest, through a pair of crummy plastic
computer speakers set at right angles to one another.
In most cases, listening to music in at least one of these ways gets
my mind going. And last time out, on 2000's The Facts of Life,
the music of England's Black Box Recorder (a trio that sounds like
the sinister older sibling of St. Etienne, mimicking that band's
roster of a female singer and two male instrumentalists creating
synth-heavy pop that exists in a world outside of time) resonated
most with me when heard through headphones. A lot of music that
relies heavily on computer-generated sounds is best experienced this
way, as if directly wired to the brain, the sound entering from two
points just millimeters from my actual gray matter. But its fatal
inability to stimulate anything besides the brain poses a
sizable problem with Passionoia, Black Box Recorder's cold and
lifeless third full-length release.
That this is not music that makes one feel is not too great a
surprise, considering the band is led by ex-Auteurs man Luke Haines,
whose constant cynical sneer makes the Fall's Mark E. Smith seem
cuddly by comparison. But where his previous Black Box Recorder
records effectively lampooned the worst aspects of contemporary
British life, the objects of his derision on Passionoia
scarcely seem worth deriding. "New Diana," for example, runs down the
cult of the late Princess of Wales, hardly a topic worth the bother.
"Girls Guide for the Modern Diva" and "Being Number One" dig into
equally barren turf, while "Andrew Ridgeley" similarly examines the
silly triteness of celebrity worship. OK, Luke, we get it
celebrities are shallow, empty-headed, soulless people, and make us
all the worst for investing our thoughts and hopes and wishes in
them. The dated, Euro-disco "These Are the Things," meanwhile, is an
inferior lyrical rehash of the last album's "Straight Life," which
explored the trappings of growing older and putting down deep roots
of the sort that ultimately strangle rather than anchor one down.
On a song called "Child Psychology" from Black Box Recorder's debut,
singer Sarah Nixey delivers a wonderfully blunt line that goes "Life
is unfair/ Kill yourself or get over it." But even as that line
typifies Haines' general sentiments, it's also ironic insofar as he
so clearly hasn't gotten over the unfairness of things.
Passionoia, then, may well be the sound of Black Box Recorder
offing itself. R.I.P.