Sonic Portraits

Momus renders average folk in song and tours

Nick Currie's motives and intentions aren't always easy to understand. After all, this is the same Scotsman who has been releasing records since 1986 under the pseudonym Momus, the name of the Greek god who criticized Zeus and was consequently banished.

The faux moniker definitely fits Currie. He has made a career out of challenging conventional wisdom, particularly as it relates to sex and popular culture. Mixing the two has gotten him into trouble. In 1991 his Hippotomomus, a record about sex for children, raised the ire of feminists and the Michelin Company, which protested a reference to the Michelin Man. The company sued, and all remaining copies of the album were destroyed.

Lesson not learned. Last year Momus released The Little Red Songbook, a collection of tunes in his self-described style of "analog baroque," a mix of retro synth-pop and classical music played on analog keyboards. Songbook was filled with more Momusian moments, including a surreal hallucination in which he imagines artist M.C. Escher as a rapper and meditates on ejaculating in a girl's mouth ("Coming in a Girl's Mouth"). But there was also a little song called "Walter Carlos."

Pioneering electronic musician Wendy Carlos was born Walter, and through the miracles of modern medicine he/she became Wendy. A trailblazing Moog player and brilliant conceptualist, Carlos performed Bach pieces on the keyboard on 1968's platinum-selling Switched on Bach. She wrote and performed the music for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and wrote the scores for The Shining and Tron. Momus's take on the Carlos legend envisioned Wendy going back in time and marrying Walter. It was meant as a tribute. But this bit of poor taste angered Carlos, and she too sued. Momus and his record label, Le Grand Magistery, settled out of court and deleted the track from additional pressings of the album.

Now stuck with large legal bills, Momus got an idea to pay them off: Get people to pay him $1,000 for a "song portrait." He posted the offer on the Internet and sold out the allotted 30 slots to fans and businesses in two weeks. Patrons filled out a personality questionnaire and were given final say on the lyrics. The album is called Stars Forever.

Says Momus: "[On Stars Forever] I was essentially trying Š to make [the patrons] larger than life. I wasn't necessarily flattering; I was more trying to offer an image-making service where as creative professional I was called in to give someone a bit more of a brand profile than they might previously have had. It was really trying to elevate them to the legendary status that those people that I used to write about already had because they were celebrities or artists or whatever."

For his part, Momus isn't able to volunteer much else about the necessity to come up with quick cash. "I did sign the legal agreement saying I wouldn't talk about it," he says. The bills dictated that he come up with some solution.

It's an interesting project in theory, but it just doesn't hold up across a double album. For an artist whose music is relatively simple and somewhat corny because of his retro '70s leanings, Momus has to rely on lyrics to help define an album. Stars Forever is essentially the same song, same story, told over and over, with slight variations. The music changes, but all of the songs, titled for the subject's name ("Stephanie Pappas," "Robert Dye," "Bill Hardy"), merely give quirky details about the person. Stars Forever is restrained by its design. There's no room for taking any of the chances that Momus has built his career on. The observations about some of the people are witty and insightful, but ultimately the album doesn't stand on its own without the backstory.

"I had two aims," he says. "One was to commemorate the person in a way that they would sort of recognize themselves but maybe slightly enhanced, heightened, a bit of brand imagery in there. But also I had my own agenda, which was to push this style of analog baroque in a new direction, to somehow make it somehow more analog or more baroque or more playful. That kept it fun from me."

One of the album's subjects couldn't be more pleased with the way her money was spent, despite the fact that Karin Komoto's song reveals that she is androgynous, naive and asexual.

"He made me realize that's what I was all about, really," says the Japan-born San Franciscan. "I heard the song, and it turned out to be everything was so true. I was quite surprised that he knew me that much, especially that I am quite asexual and naive and very, very flirtatious. It's a bit of a contradiction, you see. How can someone be asexual and flirtatious? It's something very separate for me. I'm very neutral; I don't belong to categories like female, male, heterosexual, homosexual, and the song is all about that."

Then there is the matter of the ostentatious packaging. Claiming that what Momus is doing is the musical equivalent to painting portraits, the notes on the back cover begin with "Roll over Rembrandt." Even considering Momus's history of eccentricity, that's a bit heavy-handed.

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