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The Vacuum Boys - Songs from the Sea of Love

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Artist: The Vacuum Boys

Album: Songs from the Sea of Love

Label: Fire Inc.

Review date: Dec. 11, 2002

Misrepresenting the Glitch

You shouldn't judge an album by its cover, but there are few examples of CD packaging as brilliantly deceptive as this one. Songs from the Sea of Love resembles the sort of pop artifact you might unearth in a box of old vinyl at a yard sale, lodged between Phil Phillips & the Twilights and the Crew Cuts.

Set against a pink backdrop, the black-and-white descending lettering proclaiming the band's moniker is pure kitsch, rather like a sign bearing the name of a 1950s diner. That pastiche flavor is reinforced by the black-and-white photo of the Vacuum Boys themselves. They look like a fun bunch, decked out in sailors' suits and waving to the camera from their boat. Inspection of the back cover reveals a cartoon of them playing their instruments, with credits: Guy Amitai (bass/keyboards), Gert-Jan Prins (drums/backing vocals), Heimir Björgúlfsson (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), and Dan Armstrong (lead guitar).

But there's more: a Tin Tin-style story booklet with illustrations, featuring the lads (who, in addition to being a band, are "a rock 'n' roll detective agency"), entitled "The Vacuum Boys and the Secret of the Haunted Spanish Galleon: Episode Four." We're encouraged to "JOIN THE TEAM as they uncover the secret of the three-hundred year old Spanish mummy, solve the riddles of the scary old woman, help Gert-Jan face his fear of water, and try to save the city's pets in an adventure of endless twists and turns, laughs, and rock 'n' roll." And, as if that weren't enough, there's even an invitation to join their fan club, with promises of a free Vacuum Boys iron-on patch, autographed photos, and profiles of band members.

The supreme irony is that once you actually get to the CD itself, there's no trace of these wacky popsters and no songs of maritime romance, seafaring intrigue or nautical derring-do. In fact, there aren't any songs and there's little immediate evidence of any human presence or organic instrumentation either. Rather, Songs from the Sea of Love is an entirely improvised electronic album comprising some of the most minimal experimental fare that you're likely to hear.

Like some of Bruce Gilbert's or Aphex Twin's more demanding works, this isn't exactly easy listening. The Vacuum Boys assemble sparse, frequently jarring collages from percussive fragments, distortion, glitches, hints of melody, harsh metallic eruptions, and subtle ambient coloring.

Although the repetitious sub-rock of "I Feel Love" – which could never be confused with the Donna Summer number – offers some continuity, linear progression is rare on this album; often when the Vacuum Boys' austere, fractional soundscapes coalesce into sustained patterns, they're interrupted or terminated relatively quickly.

Indeed, listening to Songs from the Sea of Love is sometimes like skipping from station to station every few seconds on an old transistor radio with poor reception, one that receives only stations dedicated to varieties of electronic noise. It's one of those records that might prompt the age-old parental question/reproach: "You call that music?" To which you can reply, "No dad, it's...er...art, actually."

But that's not to say that Songs from the Sea of Love is overly cerebral and affectless. On the contrary, it could be argued that the Vacuum Boys' machine-based exploration of sound is wholly playful: this album's fragmented, structureless structures; its discontinuous, chaotic narratives; its apparent lack of logic; its perverse delight in the multiple possibilities of noise; and its emphasis above all on process are the sonic embodiment of the spirit of human play.

Some of the longer, more expansive tracks offer the most intriguing accounts of the Vacuum Boys' experimental methodology. The epic "All It Took Was a Single Spark" keeps listeners on their toes with all manner of busy, jittery ingredients, including snatches of a vocodered voice recalling Sparky's Magic Piano and what sounds like a tape recorder rewinding at high speed. (The liner notes would have us believe that this track is a single....) Especially compelling is "To All the Trees": deconstructed funk played through blown, shorting-out speakers, with a song buried underneath, and rounded off with the ghost of a heavy metal guitar solo.

Ultimately, the tongue-in-cheek packaging of this CD isn't as deceptive as it first seems. The invitation to "Join the Vacuum Boys on an another hair-raising adventure" does have something to do with the listener's experience of Songs from the Sea of Love. This is an adventure of sorts: you don't know what's going to happen next and you can never anticipate the sonic shocks or surprises lurking around the corner. Unfortunately, however, the mysterious disappearance of the Vacuum Boys' parrot is not solved and Gert-Jan doesn't face his fear of water. Still, there's always the next episode.

By Wilson Neate

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