When last we heard from Jarvis Cocker, it appeared that he might be leaving the music business behind after seemingly saying farewell to the wonder that was Pulp via last year's greatest-hits package. "We're going to have this gap, at least a year, and if Pulp continues to exist after that, I imagine it will be quite different," he told The Observer late last year. Cocker had just gotten married and moved to Paris to settle down, with his wife since giving birth to the couple's first child. As the Observer article concluded, "Showbiz, it seems, will have to do without Jarvis Cocker for the foreseeable future."
Cocker's alter ego, however, has since emerged in the lanky form of Darren Spooner, leader of Relaxed Muscle. The group, also featuring Wayne Marsden (AKA latter-day Pulp member Richard Hawley), has released a pair of minimalist, electronic-tinged three-track EPs, "The Heavy" and "Billy Jack/Sexualized."
To label this material a major departure for Spooner (Cocker) and company would be an understatement. Crude-sounding drum machines and low-tech synthesizers dominate much of the material, while the processed vocals often sound like they've been recorded in a rusty, dented garbage can. And yet, in the midst of our age's current danceable post-punk revival, it's shockingly contemporary. Brand new, you're retro.
The earlier release, "The Heavy," finds Relaxed Muscle in full-on experimental mode, with the title track kicking things off via distorted beats and programmed handclaps, Spooner's menacing vocal straining at times to sound like Bauhaus-era Peter Murphy as a guitar steadily squawks behind him through distortion and wah effects. "Rod of Iron" takes a similar approach, Spooner ranting on about how he rules his world with a rod of iron and reminding us that he ain't lyin'. "Branded" has more of a hip-hop beat, yet manages to sound even more robotic than its companion tracks. When it came into my life earlier this year I gave this release a few listens and then filed it away.
While it's easy enough for an artist to lose me through a single misstep, I'm glad that I stuck around for Relaxed Muscle's far superior sequel. "Billy Jack" lightens the band's sound up significantly, with cartoonish sound effects and playful synth gurgles eliciting a grin as Spooner narrates the tale of Billy Jack, former nebbish turned outlaw bandit.
The band's crowning achievement arrives next with the sleazy, gritty, guitar-driven "Sexualized," the singer running through a list of items that he's sexualized (e.g., "Shopping malls are sexualized/ The car that I drive is sexualized"). It's brilliantly reminiscent of Charlotte's ridiculous advice to Chloë Sevigny as Alice to employ the word "sexy" as often as possible to attract men in Whit Stillman's film "The Last Days of Disco," which culminates in her seduction after uttering the phrase "Scrooge McDuck is so sexy" to Robert Sean Leonard's character. (There's a joke about the effect this advice had on Vincent Gallo in there somewhere, but I'll leave it be.) Outside of some surf-style guitar work, closing track "Year of the Dog" returns, unfortunately, to throwaway turf.
With Pulp gone for the time being, we're left with Relaxed Muscle, which lets Cocker indulge his darker, dippier side without doing any direct harm to Pulp's legacy. And, really, can't we all think of at least a few artists who have produced sub-par work and who we wish had done so using a pseudonym too?
Note: The rating for "The Heavy" is three stars, while "Billy Jack/Sexualized" earns six stars.