Sonic Portraits

Momus's analog synth sound isn't that far removed from a TV commercial jingle.

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.

"There's a traditional dividing line between fine art and commercial art," says Martin Amorous, Sam Houston State University art department chairman, who has yet to hear Stars Forever. "Rembrandt was commissioned. Picasso created what he wanted. And I guess that's why his stuff is more genuine. Sounds to me like what [Momus] is doing is 'New Age,' " pronounced to rhyme with "garbage." In fact, Momus himself is displeased by the grandeur and self-aggrandizing, but you have to ask him about it to find that out, which is not something every record buyer can do. If it has to be explained, what good is it?

"I did think it looked a bit like rather disgusting hype," he says. "I'm not really trying to make such huge claims for my record. They took a lot of excerpts from essays that I had written on my Web site, where the points I had been making were in context, and just put them together in different colors of type on the sleeve. I was a bit embarrassed by it. There was a certain amount of hype in the way I presented it first of all, just hoping to get the patrons in, saying, 'Having a Momus song written about you is like taking a shuttle trip to the moon.' That was me kind of desperate to get that $1,000."

Now, he's intrigued by the idea of over-commercializing pop music. His theories are more interesting than his records, and the many dissertations on his Web site,, demonstrate that he thinks a lot about the ramifications of what he's doing. Even in "Coming in a Girl's Mouth" he wondered about the "cultural significance" of such an act. Unfortunately, it's too much telling, not enough showing. It's a bad sign that he's more engaging to talk to than listen to -- just the opposite of most musicians. Faced with the criticism that his record is just a cynical attempt at commercialism, he bristles but makes an interesting point.

"As consumers, how come we can't spend more than $10? That $10 doesn't allow us to dictate what an artist does," he says. "Maybe if we spent $100 or $1,000, we'd have a lot more power. So maybe pop music isn't commercial enough. If I could tell David Bowie, 'Okay, if I give you $1,000, get rid of that awful Reeves Gabrels, that guitarist you've been using for the last ten years, and make a record in your home studio with an analog synth.' If I could commission him, I would feel a lot more powerful as a consumer."

Momus performs with Toog on Friday, November 5, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive. Call (713)5210521 for more information.

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