Mikel Rouse – Recess – ExitMusic 1013, 64:57 [12/7/10] ****:
(Mikel Rouse – vocals, arranger, composer, producer; includes field recordings from various locations)
Media manipulator, post-millennial composer, pop imagineer and audio technician: there really is no single role artist Mikel Rouse fits into. The modernist uses whatever he can find to re-examine the obsessions, nightmares and promises of humanity and mirror them back to us in his divergent viewpoint.
This year has been a busy one: Recess is one of several studio or stage projects Rouse has released or offered. Recess is an urban conceptual pop album for those familiar with Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters and others who have tried to cope with information overflow in the present-day age. The twelve tracks embody a concentrated collage of found sounds, re-contextualized conversations and other sonic components tied together to form a loosely connected post-modern pop parable. Rouse breaks up and recombines speech and transmutes spoken word splinters into musical patterns similar to Steve Reich or Nico Muhly, fellow artists who also have adapted and distorted oral elements into speculative works.
Hearing Recess on an MP3 player while strolling down city streets, or in a car stereo while driving, can be disconcerting. Songs such as “Dolls & Dreams” and “What You Want” mix birds, traffic noise, covertly recorded chats and Rouse’s often overlaid Gabriel-esque vocals into a schizoid template where a listener cannot tell if sounds come from the outside environment, inside the headphones or from speakers. Tunes like “What You Want” can suddenly veer from lightly ambient to pounding electronics, which adds to the unsettling nature.
Lyrics are a fusion of surreal and strangely poetic. The dense “Designing Women” employs wordplay and juxtaposition. Rouse solemnly intones, “So my computer crashes when I crash it” or “And here’s a lesson: what’s more is less than. Less than waking up dead.” In Rouse’s perspective, there is a dizzy logic where reality is skewed but hyper-real.
If there is a thread through Rouse’s tilted pop narratives, it’s the hopes of desperate people who try to maintain sanity in an oversaturated, unfocused world. “Family Dollar,” for example, merges a blues motif, a repeated chorus, multiple overlapped voices and an indie rock arrangement while phrases about money, health issues and leisure time tumble in and out of the mix. The lengthy piece “Coward” – which is comparable to Philip Glass’ most pop-oriented ventures – utilizes repeating acoustic guitar, strings and Rouse’s chorused singing to survey the choices individuals make that may lead to terror or violence.
While Rouse’s 64-minute undertaking is meant to stand as a single entity, each track can be listened to individually and that is one way to approach Recess: heard together the music can be a taxing experience, but there is beauty and perfectly-honed pop music unveiled within the hour-long structure. For instance, “Failure” is a refined number with an elegant arrangement and album-ending “Courage” has a mid-1990s Pink Floyd-like framework (think Pulse or The Division Bell.)
Audiophiles will appreciate the mixing and engineering. Rouse’s arrangements exploit the sound spectrum in sometimes complimentary and sometimes contrasting manners where voices, instruments and field recordings pan left, right, up and down and where portions rise and fall: determined listening is often the best way to absorb Rouse’s hallucinatory vision.
1. Dolls & Dreams
2. Cutting Class
3. What You Want
4. Plug Nickel
5. Designing Women
7. Family Dollar
9. Is That Money
11. Empty Nest
— Doug Simpson