"The Rock Machine Turns You On: Art rock trio Petomane craft a fine collection of pop tunes full of wit and graphic poetry
It seems unlikely that Petomane takes their name from a late 19th/early 20th century professional fartiste, but then stranger things have happened. Admittedly, the legendary French farteur Le Pétomane could blow a tune or two, though his range was not as broad or his melodies quite as striking as those on The Rock Machine Turns You On, the second album from the trio of singer-songwriter John Patrick Higgins, guitarist/bassist Kofi Smith and programmer/producer Christopher Kasch. Le Pétomane’s wind-powered version of ‘O Sole Mio’ may have slain them in the Moulin Rouge a century ago, but it didn’t have anything like the rhythmic drive of these songs, chiefly from Higgins’ pen.
Gently curvaceous melodies, infectious bass grooves and fat, snappy beats form the blueprint for these ten originals, while minimalist keyboards contrast with earthier – though always melodic – electric guitar lines. Dreamy, slightly woozy keyboards open ‘Genius’, before a simple beat digs its claws in. Like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, Higgins’ often indistinct lyrics are trumped by the melodic contours of his voice. Raspy trumpet and synthesizer dabs color the background, while Smith leaves his signature with a singing guitar solo.
There’s a touch of 1980s New Wave pop about ‘The Stuntman’, a curious tale of jumping and falling that rides insistent dance beats and pockets of reverie. At just over two and a half minutes, ‘Soledad Miranda’ doesn’t loiter but still works its way into your brain, courtesy of an effective guitar vamp. Likewise, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ is built on simple foundations, an acoustic guitar mantra providing the backdrop to Higgins’ tale of isolation. Here, and on the more upbeat ‘Photocopy Rockin’’, the singer probably owes a debt to David Bowie. The latter number, with guitar to the fore, female vocal harmonies and irresistible hand claps could have escaped from a session from Bowie’s most persuasive, mid-1970s heyday. A toy piano of music box delicacy announces ‘Ulster Tatler’, a driving tune whose melody is carried harmoniously by Higgins and Jen Goddard. The two combine again on the witty ‘Gainsbourg’, a bohemian Parisian fable. You can almost taste the Gitanes on the breeze as Higgins sings: 'So while I serenade the seraphim with celestial song, they know that down below is where I truly belong.'
There are echoes of David Byrne’s Talking Heads in the bass-driven disco-pop of ‘If I Could Take a Moment’, but more satisfying is the head-bobbing ‘The Sadness of Sex’, a rhythmically infectious number. The sparse arrangement of the quietly sunny ‘Juno’, meanwhile, with propulsive drums and acoustic guitar fleshed out with a little background trumpet and low-key bass, is perhaps the most radio-friendly track on the album. If the allusions to Le Pétomane and Bowie hold any validity, does this mean that The Rock Machine Turns You On is a tad artsy fartsy? Not a bit of it. These are wholly accessible pop tunes that etch themselves in the memory after just a couple of listens. Higgins’ slurred lyrics are at times a little impenetrable, but when lucid, flashes of sharp wit and graphic poetry shine through. Not that Petomane take themselves too seriously."
Culture NI, July 2014
*Clone Guilt review*
"“The Rock Machine Turns You On” – Ah! Wonderful. I tore off the Seranwrap and ran to my tourne-disque. It’s been years since I last heard Moby Grape – I couldn’t wait to hear those chiming guitar lines again.
But no, this is a different “The Rock Machine Turns You On”: it merely shares a name with the late-sixties CBS Records compilation. And it won’t play on your tourne-disque either. So what century is this?
This is the new album by Petomane. Thank Christ. No, thank Chris. Thank John too. And Martin: he played guitar. The title is a red herring, but also a double-bluff. There’s nothing like Moby Grape on here – Petomane seldom rocks out – and it’s no more machine-tooled than most music of our age. But the irony really grips the nuts of the second half of the title. It is confusing: is Petomane trying to turn me on? You recall the origin of the group’s name, from Le Pétomane, the fin-de-siècle French “fartiste”. Does he raise a laugh as a prelude to passion? In the same way, the group Petomane also frequently wrong-foots the listener. “You’re too young to understand that reference”, sings the voice of 'If I Could Take a Moment', but this voice of experience is never world-weary, whether coming on or dropping out; you’ll find us dancing around the chaise longue to the brittle breakbeat of 'The Sadness of Sex'.
When does a kiss become a bite? Petomane’s second album skitters around this nebulous poser with ten songs of heavy emotional ache. The group’s first album, Top Trumps, established the confusion of time lines that suffuses their sound, and they continue to exploit the nostalgic power of a synth wash. This is landscape scouted out by Boards of Canada: the evocation of a non-specific time of youth, of endless possibilities. In Petomane’s hands this becomes a deep topography in music: the group maps this territory, but always with the suspicion that the singer might be reading the map upside down, and soon enough it becomes clear that we are navigating Belfast with the street plan of Basingstoke.
The album opens with 'Turn On Genius' which is mixed as if to replicate the sound of the disco on the Poseidon Adventure : the dancefloor is on the ceiling, underwater, and just as you think that your dance partner will show you a Lionel Ritchie-style good time, he pirouettes and you realise that it’s actually Gene Hackman dressed as a pissed-off priest. Petomane’s sly moves are executed with confidence: 'Soledad Miranda' finds the vocal mirrored by a taut guitar line, both in the upper register. This is no high-wire act but a group in full flight, the tone is relaxed, assured, and compassionate.
The album’s climax is sustained over two songs: 'Photocopy Rockin’' and 'Gainsbarre', but if the first of these doesn’t rock out, it still fucks shit up, with (if you’ll pardon the old gag) Higgins singing like Bela Lugosi’s Dad. The erotic francophilia of the final song is surely the apotheosis of the Petomane sound, where the three-way preoccupations of books, sex, and drink meet – wine-stained with foxy light-foxing.
Devotees of their work will yelp with pleasure to find that Petomane can produce music that matches the highpoints of their previous two releases. (These highpoints are, in my opinion, 'The Dark Night of David Soul' from first album, Top Trumps, which I’ve written about previously, and 'The Scrivener', from stop-gap compilation Recycling Proficiency. The latter song combines Herman Melville and Joy Division to give a heady surge to polite refusal.) Such pinnacles are matched on the present album without any sense of artistic stagnation. With repeated listening, the irony of the title crumbles in places to reveal complex substrata, and Petomane’s The Rock Machine Turns You On turns out to be music of sufficient emotional force to accelerate coastal erosion."
Clone Guilt, June 2014.
released May 26, 2014
Words: JP Higgins; Music: C Kasch; Guitar: Martin K