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The Boston Phoenix Monkey Business

Cornelius and Money Mark.

By Matyt Ashare

JUNE 8, 1998:  Toward the end of Fantasma (Matador), the American debut by an eccentric Japanese pop savant who goes by the name of Cornelius (a/k/a Keigo Oyamada), on a song titled "Thank You for the Music," the flow of strummed acoustic guitar and Dylanesque harmonica is abruptly interrupted and you're subjected to what sounds like a radio scanning across the dial, picking up little snippets of an announcer's voice interspersed with short samples of each of the 11 other Fantasma tracks. There's the whistled bit of Beethoven's Fifth from "Mic Check," a fragment of Stereolab-style vocalizing from "The Micro Disneycal World Tour," some Yo La Tengo-ish guitar churn from "Free Fall," and a quick dose of the cartoon themes that are looped into "Monkey." Those are just a few of the sounds and styles Cornelius monkeys around with on Fantasma, which may be the most fully realized fusion of indie rock and electronica yet to rear its composite head.

Money Mark (a/k/a Mark Ramos-Nishita) is another eccentric who knows a thing or two about monkeying around with genres and hi-tech DIY creations, some of which he's picked up through his years spent apprenticing with the Beastie Boys. Sometimes referred to as the "Fourth Beastie," Mark's been an integral part of Team Ill Communication since '92 -- he'll be playing the opening set at next weekend's Tibet Freedom Concert in DC and joining the Beasties on tour after they release a new CD in mid July. But Mark has also heeded the call of his own muse, first on the EP Cry/Insects Are All Around Us, then on the full-length Mark's Keyboard Repair, and now on the new Push the Button (Mo Wax/London). It's led him down a maze of musical backstreets to the same crossroads Cornelius calls home, where the unpaved road to indiedom intersects electronica's digital superhighway.

Working mostly alone, with samplers, mixing consoles, keyboards, bass, guitar, drums, and just about anything else that creates sound, guys like Cornelius and Money Mark are free to cut rock loose from its traditional bearings -- be that the synth-pop duo, the orchestrated pop ensemble, the power trio. Like Beck, who's the model for this sort of aberrant pop psychology, they can pick and choose discrete reference points (from the Beatles and Beach Boys to Parliament and Funkadelic to Can and Neu to Taxi Driver and Looney Toons to Superchunk and Sebadoh), then mix and match them as they please. Think of it as Pavement boiled down to one guy filtering his whims and passions into his own personal pop symphony.

At least, that's a reasonable description of what goes down on Fantasma. Cornelius, who takes his moniker from the Planet of the Apes character, views everything from Beethoven's Fifth to Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" to Yo La Tengo's Electr-o-pura as recombinant sonic artifacts. He treats the guitar and the sampler as musical peers, the toy Casio keyboard and Moog as equals, the 4/4 backbeat of rock and the hectic breakbeats of drum 'n' bass as two sides of the same coin. On Fantasma he builds pop confections around the words "mic check" ("Mic Check"), a voice counting from one to six ("Count Five or Six"), and organ drone, drum machine, whistling, and acoustic guitar ("Star Fruits Surf Rider"). Upon hearing the cartoon-music pastiche "Monkey," one friend who has a fair bit of studio know-how commented somewhat derisively, "This is easy!" And though it's hard to tell what's sampled and what's actually "played" on Fantasma, it probably isn't difficult to perform the kind of looping it takes to make a song like "Monkey." But wasn't that same criticism once leveled at punk rock? Unlike more avant forms of electronica, Fantasma isn't about the process so much as the tuneful results.

Money Mark is more of a formalist than Cornelius. On '95's Mark's Keyboard Repair (Mo Wax/London) he was a retro-funk dabbler -- imagine Lou Barlow's ultra-lo-fi Sentridoh on a George Clinton kick -- stringing together 30 groove fragments that sounded more like promising blueprints for songs than completed works. Push the Button is a slightly more serious album -- i.e., some of the tracks break the four-minute barrier -- that splits its time between electronically skewed instrumental jams and scrappy, sensitive-guy indie-rock songs with vocals. He builds a techno jam around the sampled phrase "Push the button" ("Push the Button"), parodies drum 'n' bass on the loopy "PowerHouse," and experiments with a little Eastern exoticism on the subdued "Dha Teen Ta." He also sings artlessly corny lyrics like "Take me away/Take me to sunshine" ("Too like You") over scruffy acoustic guitar, plays the stoic loner against jangly 12-string guitar and piano on "Rock in the Rain," and is joined by drummer Russell Simins and bassist Sean Lennon for the groovy "Hand in Your Head." Mark may not mix it up like Cornelius, but some of the keyboard tones he uses on the guitar tunes are tweaked enough to remind you that he's comfortable on both sides of an electro-organic divide that's getting smaller every day.


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