After 10 years of import-only releases to the U.S. market, the cult
popularity of Momus in the States proves the validity of two seemingly
well-worn cliches: first, that good things come to those who wait, and
second, that if you keep doing what you do for long enough, fashion will
eventually catch up with you.
OK, perhaps I made the second one up, but it seems especially
applicable to Momus, a.k.a. 37-year-old Scotsman Nick Currie, who was
dividing his time between Paris and Tokyo long before those cities
became indie cultural meccas, and who has been writing vaguely
danceable, provocatively intellectual and indisputably witty loungecore
ditties full of name-dropping and sexual jealousy since before Beck or
Alanis Morissette were out of their teens. After seeing his first-ever
American release, Ping Pong, rewarded with top 20 college-album
status and a sold-out tour last year, Momus has returned, armed with
extra self- assurance, for one of his sharpest and most entertaining
albums to date.
The Little Red Songbook is best examined as a concept. Its title
is a tribute to the Danish sexual guide "The Little Red Schoolbook"
(banned in Currie's native U.K. when he was a child), offering no
illusions about the album's preferred lyrical topic. The cover picture
of Momus in powdered wig, fingering a Moog synthesizer, is accompanied
by the words "Please enjoy Analog Baroque," indicating a musical theme,
too. If Currie's sudden fascination for vintage keyboards and sampling
of Nintendo games for basslines seems surprisingly behind the bandwagon
for someone who has spent so long in the wilderness of trendiness, then
at least it's tempered by his decision to perform most songs on
harpsichord -- in honor of baroque music -- and to keep them mostly
under the two-minute mark to ensure that the lyrics are brief enough to
qualify as "epigrams."
The outcome of such precise preparation is effortlessly entertaining.
Certainly, there are few lyricists out there who can match Momus'
sharp-witted repartee about sexual desire. "Old Friend, New Flame" finds
the narrator silently stealing his friend's new lover through the adroit
rearrangement of magnetic poetry on the fridge; "Born to be Adored" is
self-explanatory, if only partially autobiographical; "Coming In A
Girl's Mouth" lightheartedly debates the desires behind sexual
domination; and "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With" is a hilarious take on
ingratiating award acceptance speeches, inspired by artist Tracy Emin's
"tent" art that named her real-life past lovers. (Momus names Emin,
among other supposed conquests, before stating, "Thank you from the
bottom of my heart, and from the heart of my bottom I know it must be
rotten to provide the raw material for art.")
When not engaging his narrators in potentially malicious sexual
pursuits, Momus turns his astute observational eye to the lives of those
already more famous than he: "MC Escher" imagines the subliminal artist
as a rapper; "Walter Carlos" honors the musician behind "Switched On
Bach," now known thanks to genetic engineering as Wendy, and who Momus
imagines travelling back through time to marry him/herself; "Who Is Mr.
Jones" sympathizes with Bob Dylan constantly being asked to explain his
own lyrical characters; and "The Symphonies of Beethoven" collects all
the album's obsessions together by paying lyrical tribute to classical
music, the Moog, Walter Carlos and the soundtrack to "Clockwork Orange."
There is a naive jollity to Momus' music that can appear over-pronounced
on Songbook, the harpsichords and simple melodies sometimes
suggesting that this is merely novelty, throwaway music for this
would-be Oscar Wilde to drop his pithy witticisms upon. The decision to
append 10 "karaoke" versions to the 16 vocal songs, with fans invited to
send in their own self-sung lyrics in a competition to feature on the
next Momus album, only furthers this notion of frivolity. But it would
be foolish to dismiss the musical merits of an artist whose prolific
nature and constant development suggests that he will still be
entertaining -- and educating -- us in 10 or 20 years, long after
current media darlings have been forgotten and buried.