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Signer - The New Face of Smiling

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Artist: Signer

Album: The New Face of Smiling

Label: Carpark

Review date: Sep. 13, 2004

In an election year marked by intensive scrutiny over the nature of the union between a man and a woman, it seems apt to extend that scrutiny to the bond between acoustic guitars and laptops. The 21st century has already seen throngs of jubilant gay partners married in Vermont and San Francisco and the hegemony of heterosexual marriage threatened in other states and cities across the country. Though President Bush and his new general of cultural warfare, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have meted out the legal and rhetorical bombast necessary to quash the movement, few deny that the nation is moving, however slowly, toward a more progressive stance on the union between two men or two women.

The independent music world is generally more progressive than the band of brothers holding court at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So while some have questioned the communal benefits of the relationship between singer/songwriters and their laptops, few have been willing to take an overly critical stance, except when the case is particularly offensive (see Styrofoam, Dntel’s Give Up tangent, among others).

Signer’s The New Face of Smiling offers an artfully constructed union of ambient electronic textures and engaging songwriting, but does not escape the pathological elements of the genre some have called nu-gazing or laptop folk. There is a holy trinity here: morose, simplistic acoustic guitar phrases lasting 16 measures, repeated ad infinitum (The Father); glitched-out electronic beats (The Son); and My Bloody Valentine dreamscapes accompanied by sedate, whispered vocals (The Holy Ghost). There is no intrinsic problem with this combination, and the pastiche of influences and technologies can be transcended; Greg Davis did so recently with Curling Pond Woods, also released by Carpark. Signer, too, at times allows his compositions to evolve rather than change shape with the turning of a knob or the introduction of another acoustic guitar. On “You’re Killing Us Helen,” a short noisy loop grows in volume and depth and is met with unprocessed, scattered percussion and a scratchy, reverberating violin. Suddenly a very primitive, distorted drum beat reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle ushers in floating metallic vocals that drift over the song and depart within a minute. This point marks the only real tension on The New Face of Smiling, the most dynamic interaction between the sonic elements.

That tension marks the eruption of humanity, not the presence of the human voice alone. There seems to be an ill-conceived dictum that organic or acoustic elements can somehow infuse electronic music with a sense of humanity, or that electronic elements can somehow infuse otherwise derivative songwriting with nuance and subtlety. Signer doesn’t necessarily fall prey to this fallacy, but he also fails to effectively combat its seduction, leaving those who would hope for marriage with only a civil union.

By Alexander Provan

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