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Mahjongg - Kontpab

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Artist: Mahjongg

Album: Kontpab

Label: K

Review date: Jan. 21, 2008

Mahjongg, the Chicago-based, Missouri-born post-afro-funk- soul-dance-electronic collective, does not trust much in words. The bio that accompanies this second full-length is mostly about the shortcomings of written communication, reviews and interviews. The liner notes for Kontpab is almost comically terse, the band’s name, track titles, a website and four lines of credits. Even when Mahjongg’s songs feature words, they tend to be buried under several layers of syncopated rhythms, just another sound to be experienced in a complicated mix.

And yet, this band is hardly reluctant to communicate. From the very first moments of “Pontiac,” you can hear them listening intensely to each other and reacting in split second time. It’s not verbal, but speech all the same, a discourse carried out with clattery drums, keyboards, rattles, sticks, guitars and occasional wordless melody. When the cut switches, right at the end, from a slippery, convoluted 4/4 to a time signature denominated in threes, it’s an effortless morph, as if a song could simultaneously exist in two rhythmic dimensions. It’d be tricky if you weren’t paying attention, but the people in Mahjongg are always listening.

It’s been three years since Raydoncong, with multiple side projects, a reconfiguration of membership (violinist/multi- instrumentalist/Mahjongg-sole-female Caryl Czientar is no longer in the band) and a label switch in the interim. During these three years, Mahjongg seems to have moved more even definitively into rhythm and away from melody. Funk still flits at the peripheries of Mahjongg’s extended jams, but it’s refracted and abstracted to the point of suggestion. Instead, you have long percussive interludes, where organic drums, synthesized sounds, guitars and keyboards all work in rhythmic counterpoint, evolving gradually with the appearance of new musical ideas. Not that there’s any sort of austerity at work. “Tell the Police the Truth” is all about the body, built on a jump-cut, off-beat-heavy cadence of bass, snare, keyboard and videogame sounds. You can hardly help but move. “Wipe Out” seems to keep two different beats in play at once: synthesized bass drum heavy on the fours and a lighter, higher keyboard-driven beat not quite in sync on top. It’s disorienting, like hearing two songs together.

The beat is the thing in all these songs, but a couple of them augment their rhythms with a stab at ordinary melody. “Problems” has a slo-mo new wave vibe to it, all synthetic menace and echoing machine snare pops. You can make connections to late 1980s synth bands like Depeche Mode and Human League; it’s the same robot-y vibe, with some of the polish worn off. “Those Birds are Bats,” is the disc’s oddest and, in its way, simplest cut. Instead of complex polyrhythms, we have thudding bass drum on the quarter notes, the speed pushed, the vocals right up front in big fuzzy block letters. If you didn’t have the CD case right in front of you, you’d swear it was another band.

Still most of the album, including the stellar last and penultimate cuts (“Mercury” and “Rise/Rise” respectively), embraces complexity, gets it drunk and makes it dance. You can experience Kontpab with your brain turned on, sorting out rhythms and noticing samples, or you can consume it with hands in the air. The one thing you can’t do is reduce it to words. Mahjongg is right to be suspicious of verbiage. Language just can’t get at what makes this record good.

By Jennifer Kelly

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